Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart / by Bill Bishop

In his first book, Bishop, a free-lance reporter from Austin, states that while American demographics may reflect increased diversity, sociological trends over the past few decades imply a wholly different landscape. In recent years, lifestyle choices among Americans have been leading "like-minded" groups to live together within exclusive, largely homogenous communities, a symptom of society Bishop refers to as "The Big Sort".
In an interview with Matthew Dowd, a chief campaign strategest for both George's W. Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, Bishop reveals that it was clearly understood by the mid-nineties that American communities growing in their uniformity and that, to a large degree, this 'clustering' trend was a defensive reaction to a society and world which were beyond the control of the individual. In previous decades, people's lives and sense of well-being were linked to memberships to their clubs, their trust in their local and federal governments, religions, etc. Yet these older, more established institutions were no longer providing the stability Americans wanted.
Bishop states that, within the last few decades, personal wealth and prosperity had disintegrated these social institutions. Individuals with financial freedom were choosing where they wanted to live irregardless of church, social organizations and even family units. Americans were now seeking refuge among people and places who share their "lifeworlds", or situations in which more fundamentally segregating creeds such as race, class or political orientation are the norm. Now, more than ever, personal tastes, beliefs, styles, opinions, and values are becoming important in choosing where and how persons want to live. Not only is this trend an alarming reflection of modern times, it could have significant impact and negative ramifications for the future of the country. Bishop backs his claims through the theory that uniformity breeds like-mindedness, a frightening sociological symptom which produces polarizing ideas and radicalism.
Bishop manages to deal with his subject comprehensively, even providing a somewhat even-handed approach to the topics of gender, class, race and political agendas. For the more politically minded, it's a book which investigates some of the key reasons for bi-partisanship in America today. Overall, it's an important book covering an important topic which will be sure and catch on with readers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Girls of Slender Means / by Muriel Spark

Award-winning Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (1918-2006) lived quite a globe-trotting life during her illustrious career as a writer, having her only child with her first husband in Zimbabwe, working for Allied Intelligence in London during WWII, and making a home in New York, Rome, Budapest and Israel prior to becoming a permanent resident of Tuscany by the time of her death. Her most well-known work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was well-received at its 1963 publication and continues to receive acclaim as a novel, a 1965 film starring Dame Maggie Smith and, most recently, an off-broadway play. Her short, poignant novella The Girls of Slender Means follows several young single women bonded together during London's post-war years.

In Britain in 1945, the severe economic strain means that the practices of rationing and partitioned work duties must continue for a time while the infrastructure, particularly in London, is collectively rebuilt. For this reason, establishments like "The May of Teck Club" have been founded to aid the cause, its primary purpose being to house women of a young age so that they could safely live and work in London apart from their families. The women of the May of Teck are concerned with the news that Nicholas Farringdon, an anarchist intellectual writer and inspirational friend known to all the girls as Nicky, has been suddenly killed in Haiti. As news about the death catches hold, reminisces about Nicky coincide with each girl's lives, loves and convictions.

Their current romances, past love affairs, ambitions and dreams are mutually conveyed as their daily routines are collectively imbued with demanding duties, meager salaries and longing for a better situation. This is one of Spark's most concise, well-written books; winningly realistic and consistently witty with rare, appealing characters from familiar circumstances. All readers may not catch on to Spark's style immediately. The narrative tends to jump around a bit and a takes some re-perusing to get the characters right, but its a story which seems to mesh well more as a collective, first-person plural narrative--a singular tone amidst multiple voices. Fans of Spark's other works are sure to enjoy this one. (FIC SPARK)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Stranger Beside Me / by Ann Rule

American non-fiction author Ann Rule has made quite a career out of profiling true crime cases, illuminating the scene, the situation, the motives involved and, particularly, the intimate lives of the victims and villains. Yet a special twist is added to Rule's 1980 (and later 2000 reprint) book The Stranger Beside Me. Rule herself is, chillingly, one of the characters, having worked beside notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in a crisis center during her days as a Seattle policewomen, then considering him a "true gentleman" and "likeable co-worker". Only here does she reveal the shocking revelation of Bundy as not only a man she once referred to as "dear friend", but as a monster of unspeakable atrocities she herself can scarcely fathom.
At first glance, no one would have taken Ted Bundy for a serial killer. His conventional, handsome visage, amiable demeanor and intelligent speech had everyone fooled, so much so that his killing spree ran into the dozens, covering 5 states prior to his initial apprehension. And even then, due to lazy police work, he managed to escape, committing at least three more grisly killings in Florida prior to his final capture, conviction and death sentence.
A child born into rather unfortunate circumstances (the fact that his sister was actually his mother was hid from him until he was a teenager), Ted remained shy and introverted for most of his youth, never much of a troublemaker nor singled out by the institutional system as a potential problem for society. Through his stepfather's extensive collection of adult magazines, Ted had been exposed to assorted pornography, much of it particularly graphic, at an especially sensitive age, a symptom he would later attribute to sparking his acute interest in sexual violence. By his twenties, Ted had mastered a dual persona: well-mannered, socially-adept white collar professional vs. "the entity", his own term characterizing his pathologically motivated, sexually-driven need to kill. He effectively appropriated each in a more or less routine fashion, easily able to manipulate others (mostly women, all his victims were female) and conceal his motives and any criminal evidence after the fact. His first murder, an unidentified hitchhiker whose remains were never found, occurred in 1973 when Ted was 26. Successively in the years between 1974 and 1978, Bundy murdered over thirty women (the true count is still unknown), each killed in excessively brutal fashion, often bludgeoned to death, impaled, or otherwise sexually maimed.
This book is actually two stories. One describes the gradual disintegration of a seemingly normal, affable, intelligent man into a sexual psychopath so evil, so preternatural in his vicious killings, that one wonders if he was human at all. The other story is that of Ann Rule herself, a decent, hard-working, middle-aged mother of four who meets and befriends a nice young man working beside her in a crisis clinic. The slow but inexorable realization on Rule's part that this man whom she'd accepted as a "dear friend" is in fact an unspeakably violent serial killer is almost painful to read, her new afterward penned in 2000 revealing that she still hasn't "recovered" and "moved on". Yet, all told, it makes for a great read for anyone interested in true crime.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Last Convertible / by Anton Myrer

American novelist and WWII veteran Anton Myrer (1922-1996) wrote several well-received books, many of them on war, combat experiences the personal repercussions involved. The Last Convertible chronicles the intertwining paths of several youths entering their college years just prior to World War II.

"One minute we were a group of awkward,ill at ease strangers thrown together by chance, the next we were a force...comrades, partners, band of brothers, call us what you will."

The group of friends who would become known as the "Fusiliers" (George, Jean-Jean, Terry, Dal, Chris) all arrive at Harvard's freshman orientation in the early autumn of 1940, soon establishing solid mutual friendships among themselves and building loyalty to one another even amid attachments with several likable though somewhat garish females. Collectively, as each are caught up in the ensuing tumultuous years of the Second World War, their lives and subsequent relationship characterized and defined by the turmoil at home and abroad--also, to a lesser extent, through the affection each share for the "Empress", the green 1938 custom convertible. Preserving the memories for all is George Darrow, the leader of the group, who understands the importance of memory, legacy and, above all, love. George knows that love, with it's loyalty, pain, schisms, dreams; its essence often questioned, often broken, yet somehow is always redeemed defines the substance of life.

Through George's eyes, we watch as the group's fortunes rise and fall, their marriages bloom and are strained even as their own bonds of friendship grow, solidify and ultimately fall away. We read as their children grow, suffer, live and, in George's case, die (his son Ronny in Veitnam), carrying on the paradox and pathos of love and brotherhood vs. war and death as a way of life. With fine, lyrical prose, Myrer describes the pivotal World War II years and the impact and legacy the events surrounding the lives of those who lived it years after the fact. Thrilling and vivid descriptions of WW2 activity with it's inevitable trauma and loss are portrayed accurately even as romance away from the battlefield abounds with the flowery pursuit of true love throughout. This is an exceptional work by Anton Myrer, written almost as if he had lived the story himself. (FIC MYRER)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Heat (DVD) 1995 / a Michael Mann film; starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, John Voight & Ashley Judd

"You want to be makin moves on the street? . . . have no attachments, allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner."

When a heist involving a hijacked armored truck is executed in broad daylight, LAPD members are suprised later on to find the cash and most of the currency lying untouched still inside the cab. It's an unusual but not unheard of situation, one which well-worn chief investigator Vincent Hannah instantly pins, explaining the meticulously conceived plan for the robbery (lucrative offshore equity bonds the target, not the cash), how it was pulled off and surmising on the likely party of adept, experienced criminals involved ("this look like gangbangers workin' the local 7-11 to you?"). A skilled veteran with a well-practiced team working under him, Hannah is soon able to 'make' the culprits, certain they're the same unit, headed by professional thief Neil McCauley, who've masterminded several similarly unsolvable crimes. But with little-to-no evidence and only vague information on the identities of those involved, Hannah can only hope for a break in the case or to somehow catch McCauley in the act.

Not too many career criminals make it to where Neil McCauley is; not just in terms of age and financial security but having attained the skill, discipline, wisdom and expertise required for undetectable, high-stakes holdups. For McCauley, what he does is every bit as painstakingly precise as those in the law-abiding professions, his approach to his work as polished, proficient and vocationally sound as anyone, perhaps more so. When the ultimate 'job' is laid out before McCauley and his gang of loyal though less-immersed veteran criminals, the decision is made to go forward--one last job and then out for good. Carefully, the necessary tactics are employed to not only execute the operation, but to evade the 'heat' which would inevitably bear down if plans were made known.

Heat was one of the last, good American movies. With quality performances all around from great actors in their prime, masterful storytelling by Michael Mann and engaging, authentic action sequences, it definitely rates high on the list of movies-to-see-before-you-die movies. Everything fits into a complex but well-conceived format, incorporating multiple plots and subplots all illuminating a good chunk of just why it is that everything must be the way it is: McCauley has to be a criminal for the same reason Hannah can't be anything other than cop. In one pivotal, almost legendary scene between Pacino and De Niro, each confesses to the other (and the audience) the movie's most fundamental maxim, that each needs the other: McCauley: "I don't know how to do anything else." to which Hannah replies "neither do I." Accessibility is another reason it works. The film's sizable range of characters and situations is matched with appropriate depth and substance, creating a movie with both mainstream appeal and iconoclastic intrigue. (DVD HEAT)

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Haunting of Hill House / by Shirley Jackson

A tale of subtle, psychological suspense, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has unnerved readers since its original publication in 1959. Stephen King among others has claimed it to be one the finest horror novels of the twentieth century.

"Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within . . ." p. 1

A nineteenth century mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain, Hill House manor was originally intended to be a home for Crain and his family. But now, long after the ill-fated plans have self-destructed and years of neglect have enshrouded the house with ruin and decay, the daunting structure has essentially lain uninhabited for decades. Dr. John Montague is an expert on paranormal phenomenon and has acquired access to Hill House in hopes of finding scientific evidence of the supernatural. Accompanying Montague are three additional visitors. Eleanor and Theodora are two young women personally pre-selected by Montague in light of each's prior 'telekinetic' experiences. Luke Crain is the official heir to Hill House, and though he could care less about it, is willing to allow Dr. Montague's liberal use of the house in exchange for a generous sum of money.

Almost immediately upon settling in, all four inhabitants begin to experience strange events. Awkward sounds, abrupt temperature changes, ghostly apparitions, 'blood' spattered on walls and other odd, unexplained occurrences increasingly consume the atmosphere. Dr. Montague and his collection of fancy equipment constantly monitor the activity, sensing 'alternative' energy sources and "supernatural manifestations" nearly around the clock. Eleanor especially tends to experience singular phenomena to which the others remain oblivious, perceiving identifiable shapes in mirrors and able to communicate with 'voices'--"the dead are not silent in Hill House"--around her. As the time passes, the situation escalates with Eleanor seemingly a magnet for the supernatural, singularly attracting eerie sensations and interacting with the 'other' side. Slowly she begins interpreting aspects of the house's indescribably horrific past, coming to terms with her own daunting reason for deciding to accept the "invitation" to Hill House. Though the others are less prone to similarly engaging episodes, the physical horror of Hill House ominously manifests itself, distorting reality and stretching the bounds of the physical in increasingly dark, chilling and harrowingly intense ways. Soon all four discover that the 'visitor' status they've assumed may not be mutually understood by house's 'caretakers'.

The Haunting of Hill House remains one of the most important horror novels of all time and certainly one of the most singular haunted house tales ever written. It is certainly worth mentioning that at no time do we or the characters actually see any sort of visible ghostly manifestation; the phenomena are limited to cold spots, spectral banging on the walls and doors, messages written on walls, and torn, blood-spewed clothing in one room.  Truly, Jackson's writing itself is haunted, and she herself almost surely was in some manner. There is a degree of insanity in every page; the characters often engage in dialogue that is childish of a sort and certainly different from normal adult conversation. Eleanor is an especially appealing character to me because I share many of her doubts and fears and no one rivals Jackson in the ability to paint a deeply moving, psychologically deep portrait of the tortured soul. The ending itself is striking and perfectly fitting, I feel, and does much to keep the spirit of this wonderful novel in your mind and soul for a long time. This is not a novel to cast aside and forget; long after you have finished the book, Eleanor and Hill House will haunt your mind and soul. (FIC JACKSON)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer is “complete” (except for the follow-up book Midnight Sun, recapping the first book’s events from the hero Edward’s perspective) and the film for the second book is scheduled for release next month. I am a latecomer to the series, being neither a teenager nor a vampire enthusiast. But once I started Twilight, the first book (actually on a dare), I was delighted with what I had found. Now I have read them all and have the first movie, and am waiting for the second.

What is interesting to me is that so many other readers and critics classify this romance in the books between Bella and Edwards as a typical “young love” situation, impossibly unreal and the stuff that dreams are made of. A lot of older readers complain that there’s too much of Bella’s adoration of Edward in the book. I wonder if they are a minority, or other readers are suffering through this excess just to stay with the two of them, and follow their adventures.

I would venture to say that the real power of this series lies in what happens to them, and how their reaction to events tests their relationship and makes it grow. Yes, they are both attractive – Edward has a radiance from being a vampire that is unmistakable, and Bella must also have something, since so many of the boys in Forks are attracted to her. But it’s her essential caring for people - going to Forks to help out her Mom, understanding the nuances of the boy-girl relationships around her and being supportive of them, cooking for her Dad and always trying to work with and not against him – this is what Edward loves. Bella also has her essential truthfulness and empathy, for her Mom, her Dad, the young and eager werewolves, and for Jacob, who is the best of friends and at the same time the worst, since he demands too much of her. And Edward has faults…he is overly protective of Bella and often assumes danger where there is none.

What is captivating about the books is that Bella and Edward’s differences – not just their human/vampire traits, but their disagreements – these are not downplayed, but presented as issues that they have to work out to be together. Bella’s total prostration in the second book is dramatic, but is true to the essence of the nightmare that she lives through. Any reader of any age who has experienced loss can empathize with her. And by the third book, Eclipse, what Bella and Edward have gone through for each other has deepened their relationship in noticeable ways. Even though they have serious issues that they don’t see eye to eye on (such as Edward fearing for Bella’s safety when she’s with Jacob, and Bella wanting to give up her human life for Edward) each time they are together is so affirming to them both, that they can’t be separated by arguing. And both come to terms with each other’s beliefs - Edward finally trusting Bella’s judgment of the situation with Jacob, and Bella accepting Edward’s desire to “play by the rules” in their intimate relationship.

So, I would beg to differ from those who say that the series is all about finding someone irresistible and compelling who is actually very alien and dangerous for you. I think that all the life and death scenarios in the Twilight Series work because they stem from the protagonists’ real choices. I also think that these kind of life and death scenarios are happening to us all the time, but on a level that we can only dimly recognize. Our choices in life and their results are revealed over time to be just as irrevocable as those choices made by Bella and Edward.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New Books on the NFL

More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL / by Brian Billick; with Michael McCambridge
Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick explains the NFL from the top down, first detailing the increasingly complex infrastructure of each team's corporate makeup, the heavily weighted financial stipulations and the impending collective-bargaining crisis which threatens the game as we know it. He also explains player acquisition and salary cap designation in very easy-to-understand terms, detailing the inner-workings of the annual April draft, how each prospect is analyzed and evaluated and, additionally, how the free agency market has essentially made for a far more unpredictable scenario than other sports.

The Billion Dollar Game: The Improbable Collision of Culture, Commerce and Competition on Super Bowl Sunday / by Allen St. John
No one thought at the time of the Super Bowl's inagural game in 1967 that the January championship would become the equivalent of a national holiday--a billion dollar holiday at that. The "game" is now a two-week festival centered in the host city yet ongoing in locales the world over, rivaling the Olympics and World Cup in attention and global popularity. The 14-day build up attracts waves of media conglomerates, party groupies, corporate sponsors, industry bigwhigs and popular entertainers indicating that the actual Sunday event, as St. John so aptly states, has become largely overshadowed by this marketplace atmosphere which crudely detracts from the credibility of the game itself.