Monday, August 31, 2009

On Beauty / by Zadie Smith

English-born Howard Belsey is a art history professor at a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. Over the years he has seen his liberal academic values and leftist ideologies slowly eroded in the face of intellectual conservativism, a fact more acutely rendered through the attitudes and opinions of his long-time nemesis Prof. Monty Kipps. Despite his disappointments, Howard is a relatively satisfied man, married to his African-american wife Kiki and loved by his three college-age kids Jerome, Zora and Levi. Yet a shadow closes over Howard's world when Jerome, his oldest, interns at a college in England where he lodges at the Kipps' residence and, in the process, falls head-over-heels in love with the Kipps' daughter Victoria.
Though the budding romance between Jerome and Victoria is soon broken off, aspects of the entanglement have re-engaged Howard with instances from a preferredly forgotten past, one which includes incidents of a particularly distasteful nature between he and Monte Kipps. Now with the Kipps planning a move to America (Monte on a visiting professorship), Howard's world seems to be closing in around him. Compounding the drama in Howard's life, though in a more subversive manner, is the fallout from a one-night stand he'd had with a colleague some months previous, the details of which are now painfully known to Kiki and the children along with a select number of intimate peers and faculty members.
It is from this backdrop that author Zadie Smith, also the writer of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, deftly portrays the intimacies of family situations, relating how the conflicts of relationships and antagonism, race and identity, class and prejudice are all enmeshed in the strata of daily life. Reminiscent of E.M. Forster's Howard's End--Smith apparently adapted aspects of her own novel's key characters from Forster's original two female protagonists--this is a moving novel centered on the complications and comprimises arising out of a growing need for connection in modern life.

Friday, August 28, 2009

M (DVD) 1931 / a Fritz Lang film starring Peter Lorre

"Do you mean to say that you have to kill?"

In a 1930's-era German city, a series of brutal child murders has gripped citizens in the clutches of terror. Fully aware of a madman preying on children, parents take special care to guard their school-aged kids, exacting a strict curfew and other protective measures around the clock. Yet all their vigilant efforts prove useless when the killer strikes again, this time in broad daylight swiping a young girl off the streets, killing her and dumping her dead body in a city park. Uproarious with outrage, residents clamor for the murderer's capture coercing the police commissioner to approve the most intense level of law enforcement. Within hours multiple patrolmen are on every corner of the city, periodically interrogating residents on a more or less random basis and enhancing infiltration of the city's criminal element in a desperate attempt to corner the villain. Meanwhile the city's organized crime outfit, their operations stagnated by hypervigilant law officers, decide the situation must end; the killer must be caught in order to alleviate the heightened police presence. Employing lines of communication known only to members of the criminal underground and enlisting the aid of homeless street-dwellers, heads of the various racketeering factions throughout the city cooperate to seek out the identity of the murderer and ultimately remove him from the picture.

In what's predominately considered to be his greatest film, renowned German director Fritz Lang presents a masterpiece of a early auditory cinema in this harrowing portrayal of the frenzied atmosphere surrounding a chilling set of serial murders. Loosely based on the real case of serial killer Peter Kurten, the "Vampire of Dussledorf", whose string of murders and sexual assaults in 1929 set the entire country on edge, M is an enchanting, masterful artistic creation, hauntingly engaging with its dark subject matter, social commentary, psychological suspense and brilliant acting by a young Peter Lorre. (DVD M)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A.D. : New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

Although I am not that familiar with graphic books, the drawing on the cover of this book got my attention right away. Hurricane Katrina is pictured as an enormous swirling mushroom-like cloud descending on the city of New Orleans. Josh Neufeld, the author and illustrator, has written another nonfiction graphic book on his travels in Europe and Asia, and is a contributing artist for the work of the graphic realist Harvey Pekar, best known for the series American Splendor. You can see the original version of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge online at Larry Smith, the story-telling website’s creator, suggested Neufeld do a serial on Katrina’s survivors, after Neufeld had published a book recounting his experience of helping out with the Red Cross in Biloxi, Mississippi after the storm.
In the book, we follow the experiences of seven people in New Orleans, based on real life characters, as they lived through Katrina. After the ominous preface - a series of drawings showing the city, the storm slowly approaching and then wreaking havoc, the subsequent flooding and desolation – the story then goes back in time, introducing the characters and their reactions to the news of the impending hurricane. Neufeld is bent on giving us the complete picture of their experiences, from the foul language many use, to the gritty details of having to tend to bodily functions without benefit of restrooms.
As you witness the different reactions to the emergency, you realize each are dealing with different pressures and needs. Denise, a social worker living with her mom who is a hospital technician, goes to the hospital to shelter but finds their promised room has been given away to employees with more status. Abbas, a convenience store owner, decides to stay by his store with a friend, only to end up on the roof, with everything gone in the flood. As an outsider, it was striking for me to realize the impact of the flooding – how the storm was one thing, but the levees’ destruction caused the real disaster. You can see more clearly how so many could really not evacuate, and the calamity of their very real abandonment by the authorities. And the graphic format is invaluable in its ability to show the immediacy and the starkness of the reality, which proved so overwhelming in spite of how resourceful everyone tried to be.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mortgages & Refinancing w/ David Reed

Mortgages 101: Quick Answers to Over 250 Critical Questions About Your Home Loan / by David Reed
With concise and simple explanations, experienced senior loan officer David Reed informs the layperson on the ins and outs of the mortgage system, hitting on all of the major issues like how home loans are configured, how the real estate market affects things, options for refinancing and the terms of foreclosure. Reed also discloses information on improving your credit rating and how to cut costs on your insurance bills. Also included in this very accessible and practical book is an easy-to-follow dictionary of terms and mortgage jargon just right for the average homeowner to understand.
An Insider's Guide to Refinancing Your Mortgage / by David Reed
The current economic crisis has many homeowners in need of freeing up their cash flow. Mortgage expert and financial whiz David Reed provides some great insider information for current and potential homeowners all intended to help today's penny-penched consumer save on their home loans. Righ upfront Reed tells you pretty much exactly what you want to know: when is the right time to refinance? It's not always when the rates are lowest. Other advice includes bits on how to lock in the lowest interest rate, save on the closing costs and which lender to go with.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids / by Alexandra Robbins

The world of college admissions isn't what it used to be. Only a few decades ago, good grades were, in many cases, all you needed to gain admission to the institution of your choice. Nowadays, even straight A's and near-perfect SAT scores can't guarantee entry into even more modestly prestigious schools. Such a high-stakes educational culture has spawned a generation of driven kids perpetually competing for the limited number of slots at the nation's most selective colleges and universities. Setting aside personal interests for more college preparatory routines, many of today's college-bound high school students ardently push themselves through endless hours of study, multiple extracurriculars and other "admissions friendly" activities in an effort to gain entry into the upper-echelon arena of higher education. "Well-roundedness" and "versatility" are major buzz words. So many of today's kids bent on getting into their "first-choice", even as acceptance rates at most elite schools remain intimidatingly small, that every facet of each student is all the more important. Bluntly stated, "You can't just be the smartest. You have to be the most athletic. You have to be able to have the most fun. You have to be the prettiest, the best-dressed, the nicest, the most wanted . . . and, above all, you have to appear to be happy" (p. 42).
In her follow-up to Pledged, a poignant in-depth look at college sororities, author and journalist Alexandra Robbins profiles a select group of overachieving high school seniors at Walt Whitman High School (Bethesda, MD), each daily enduring the pressures to not only perform well academically, but to fulfill a complex set of "preferred qualifications" deemed necessary for eligible applicants to top-tier universities. That each student is abundantly qualified goes without saying. Increasingly more important in regards to the model application is the "life experience" aspect. Potential students with impeccable grades and accompanying accolades are frequently disappointed to learn that their shiny resume is totally void without evidence of authentic exposure to the real world at large. "You would have to have lived in Mongolia for two years or have been in a civil war", one of Robbins' profilees was told when considering applying to Stanford. What stands out as a glaring counter-effect to this ultra-competitive system, and what Robbins subtly attempts to reveal, is how the entire function of education is essentially turned on its head--the process of learning and acquiring knowledge has been superseded in place of the ambition to secure approval and acceptance from the institutional realm.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Woman Next Door / by Barbara Delinsky

Cozy suburban neighborhoods are meant for families; not young, buxom, recently-widowed women who've mysteriously become pregnant. For Amanda O'Leary, the news that her beautiful but reclusive next door neighbor Gretchen Tannenwald is suddenly with child--father unspecified--carries some twisted irony. Since their wedding day, Amanda and her husband Graham have tried everything imaginable to have a baby, a fact made all the more unbearable by her knowledge of Graham's ambitions for multiple children and Graham's family's equally fervent affinity for lots of kids. Now with a mystery baby next door, Amanda can't keep away the nagging suspicions that Graham just may have fathered Gretchen's baby. After all, from what Amanda's observed, Gretchen is convincingly friendlier with men than she is with women, never hesitating to ask Graham for assistance on more than one occasion.
Amanda's friends Karen Cotter and Georgia Lange, also neighbors in the same cul-de-sac, have too begun to speculate on the parentage of Gretchen's baby, each possessing reasons enough to suspect their own husbands in with the pool of potential candidates. Karen, a stay-at-home mother of three, has already stood witness to multiple incidents of infidelity by her husband Russ and Georgia's husband Lee, while more trustworthy, also spends the most time around the house acting as the surrogate "mom" to the couple's two kids during Georgia's lengthy business trips. As the months pass and Gretchen's belly swells, Amanda and company endure the irritation of not knowing the origin of the pregnancy, a secret offsetting problems within each woman's lives, families, friendships and marriages.
A lifelong New Englander and former cancer survivor, Barbara Delinsky has been a prominent writer since the 1980's, taking up the craft after reading a magazine article on writing your own novel. She has since authored dozens of domestic fiction books, all with relavent themes, well-crafted stories and intriguing characters. Knowledgeable about personal insecurities and internal pressures within relationships, Delinsky excels at creating context, authenticating the characters with appropriate enough conditions and capabilities to fully illuminate each's situation. The Woman Next Door, with its captivating plot, multi-dimensional characters and endearing protagonist, creates an alluring, well-rounded story which is sure to satisfy its audience and resonate with readers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder : a novel / by Evelyn Waugh

A masterpiece of twentieth century literature perhaps most known as an award winning miniseries (1981) starring Jeremy Irons, Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is a timeless classic set during the pivotal interwar years in Britain, uniquely examining the wealthy upper classes--their family values, social obligations and the peculiar, often tragic situations in which they live.

An officer in the Second World War, Capt. Charles Ryder heads a reserve infantry unit currently being shuffled between training grounds still awaiting their marching orders for deployment to the front lines. A dismal, brooding and melancholic Capt. Ryder has grown apathetic to his job, morbidly depressed by the situation and wholly disillusioned with life in the Army. By chance, when his platoon is restationed near an extravagant estate house, Charles himself is "revisited" by memories of past times spent at the grand home and his interaction with the charming, yet troubled family who lent it its namesake--the Flytes of Brideshead Manor. Initially recalled are Charles' years at Oxford when as a first year student, he became associated with young Sebastian Flyte, an eccentric young man from an extremely wealthy family whose oddities and peculiarities--always dressing in party clothes, carrying a Teddy bear at all times, over-expressive acts of generosity and contrition, etc.--were only rivaled by his extravagant taste, equally extravagant friends and incorrigible reckless behavior.

Through his friendship with Sebastian, Charles becomes acquainted with the other Flytes; of whom Sebastian himself views unfavorably (identifying them as "beasts"), but with whom Charles grows especially close to throughout the successive months, years and accompanying decades. Sebastian's mother Lady Teresa Flyte ("Lady Marchmain") is the matriarchal head of the family and defacto proprietor of the Brideshead estate. The situation stands that, after a falling out with her husband Lord Marchmain, who has since remained abroad in conspicuous attempt to avoid any contact with his wife, Lady Marchmain has basically reared their four Children--Bridey, Julia, Sebastian and young Cordelia--alone, bringing them up in the tradition of her own stringent Catholicism and instilling in them the faith's truths, principles and particularly dire implications on life, death and eternity.

It is the incontrovertible convictions imparted by the faith upon each Flyte family member which Charles sadly discloses as the legacy he most associates with Brideshead. From Charles' viewpoint, the outdated, absurd and innocuous aspects of the faith, its rules and regulations, standards and strictures have directly influenced the tragic demise of the family and, indirectly, the dissolution of his own happiness. This is truly a remarkable novel; brilliant as a reflective, epochal, incisively critical and passively satirical period piece illuminating the era's class system, the obligations of the aristocracy, its paradoxical family values, multiple obstacles to relationships and still-lingering restrictions of religion. Waugh's masterpiece has withstood the test of time to not only maintain its initial success since its 1946 publication, but has grown in popularity over the years, attracting new readers with each passing generation. (DVD BRIDESHE)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Outliers: the story of success by Malcolm Gladwell (audio book)

I drive too much and cannot stand most commercial radio stations. Recently I began listening to audio books when NPR isn’t playing news and documentary programming. My book consumption is now officially comparable to my coffee intake.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: how little things can make a big difference, which was published in 2002, renewed my love for reading non-fiction. The library has Gladwell’s more recent book, Outliers: the story of success, as an audio book and in print. The audio book is read by Gladwell, which adds a certain panache to the content of the book.

Simply put, Gladwell focuses on how things happen. In The Tipping Point he focused on issues like the rebirth of the Hushpuppies shoe company and the rise of teenage smoking. In Outliers Gladwell examines the success of people and the remarkably productive lives they lead. In turn, he compares those who never reach their potential and why. We learn that genius does not guarantee success, but rather hard work, determination, and a considerably amount of opportunity, circumstance, and (believe it or not) luck. Gladwell uses pop cultural icons like Bill Gates and The Beatles, as well as less known phenomenon, like the success of the KIPP schools and a series of Korean Air plane crashes. His examination is inspiring and demonstrates the complexity of success.

Those with a curious mind will be enthralled with Galdwell’s observation in print or read aloud. Both are available in the non-fiction section of the library along with his other books, The Tipping Point and a Spanish translation of Blink.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Songs Without Words / by Ann Packer

California-born author Ann Packer grew up the daughter of Stanford professors and evidence of her academic background is largely visible in her writings. Her book The Dive From Clausen's Pier received loads of popular acclaim and was recently made into a Lifetime movie. Songs Without Words highlights four major characters, each a victim of their own doubts, insecurities and perceived self-inadequacies within their ordinary domestic lives.
Sarabeth and Liz have been close for a long time, practically sisters ever since Sarabeth's mother committed suicide after which Liz's family largely assumed care of Sarabeth on a semi-permanent basis. Now adults, the pair have their separate lives but remain on intimate terms, closely intertwined with each's families and familiar with the various problems, concerns, feelings and secrets common to middle age. Liz is the consummate housewife, married to Brody, "a keeper", who's not only a well-established corporate trendsetter, but a caring father for the couple's two teenagers--Lauren (16) and Joe (14)--and a constructive type with time for about-the-house hobbies and keeping in shape. Eccentric, soulful and free-spirited, Sarabeth's life is a bit different. A freelance artist and entrepeneur, she finds herself frequently dissatisfied with life--two failed marriages and multiple careers--and eager for experience. Her alternative means of fulfillment, more often than not, take shape in the form of various loose relationships and affairs, the latest of which has torn apart her emotional well-being.
Liz's daughter Lauren is having the hardest time though. Sinking in a sea of anguish, depression and self-hatred, her loose attempts at numbing the pain--withdrawn isolation, pills, self-mutilation, etc.--culminate in a near-fatal accident, one which not only lands her in the mental ward of the hospital but brings the entire family, Sarabeth included, into confrontation with some deeply disturbing internal issues. Unable to grasp why Lauren, their well-rounded, A-student model child, could be so wretched, Liz and Brody find their own once-solid relationship with each other unraveling. Meanwhile Sarabeth, who may be the one person able to identify with Lauren's situation, continues her own downward spiral, removing herself from Liz and Brody's company and plunging further into her own pit of despair.
Author and literary critic John Barth may have been on to something in his assessment of Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar, and other somber-toned, self-evaluative books of a simlar vein, when he gave it the label of "secular news reports". It's an accurate enough description for this type of contemporary womens fiction which exhaustively investigates the feelings, reflections, doubts, fears, memories, regrets and convictions of the relavent, predominately female characters. This book is like that, though not in a necessarily negative capacity. Packer's Songs Without Words achieves what so many other authors and wannabe authors try but fail at--realize the self-conscious as well-articulated prose.

Tishomingo Blues / by Elmore Leonard

Dennis Lenahan is a traveling high-dive artist making a living performing daredevil-esque dives into a miniscule water tank at mostly low-end hotels and resorts. His latest gig has him set for the rest of the summer at an Indian Hotel and Casino in rural Tunica, Mississippi. It's a place where remnants of the Old South are still going strong, even if new ideas and organizations have steadily infiltrated the territory. Unbeknownst to Dennis, the resort and its clientele, primarily consisting of traveling businessmen and middle-income vacationers, is heavily involved in the drug business run by the Dixie Mafia. It isn't long before Dennis learns how much involved the hotel really is when he accidentally witnesses a murder below his perch on his high dive platform. Warned to keep silent about what he's just seen, Dennis does his best to mind his own business, planning to wait it out.
Things become even more complicated when a smooth-talking gangster from Detroit, Robert Taylor, befriends Dennis and gradually incorporates him into his masterplan for moving in on the Dixie Mafia's turf. Soon Dennis can't help but become involved in the proceedings as caught in the middle of the conflict, he has no choice but to play his part in the battle, one that takes on literal proportions when the rival gangs (all of the major players included) face off in a Civil War reenacment.
Elmore Leonard doesn't know how to write an out-of-place sentence or bad line of dialogue. Effortlessly, his stories and characters elicit the sort of wise-guy demeanor and cool back-and-forths readers can't get enough of. His over 50 novels have him squarely established as one of the country's leading authors of crime fiction.