Thursday, December 31, 2009

Buddenbrook: The Decline of a Family / a novel by a Thomas Mann; trans. by Klaus Marie Brandauer

Among the pinnacles of German literature, Thomas Mann is one name which shines exceptionally bright. Born in Lubeck in 1875, Mann was the son of a moderately well-to-do town merchant and prominent baroness. Though he would publicly poke fun and even revile his bourgeios background he was, self-proclaimedly, quite fond of the culture which it preserved. His most recognizable feat was perhaps capturing, with sardonic candor and discerning commentary, the transition of German society from an age of loosely defined aristocracy to a united federation and forerunner to a republic. Published in 1900 after over three years of writing, Buddenbrook is seen by critics as, if not his best, at least his most autobiographical and densely layered novel.

In northern Germany nearing the end of the 19th century the Buddenbrooks of Lubeck represent one of the rich, highly educated families which at the time form the upper class level of Prussian society. Though prosperous and influential, the family is well-grounded in morality, sternly pious and deeply reverential towards established traditions of integrity and hard work. The Buddenbrooks live in a world where strict divisions of society are laid down. Distinctions between the labor classes, bourgeoisie and upper-middle class mercantile families are easily identifiable even within the relatively small town of Lubeck where the Buddenbrooks play a major role in maintaining the status quo in regards to both themselves and everybody else. Unspoken guidelines for whom their children should associate with, which schools they should attend, who they form ties to and, of course, whom they should ultimately marry go hand-in-hand with daily tasks. Both sides of the social spectrum are aware of the often costly implications an inappropriate match could have which is why it is so important that the couple’s youngest daughter Frau Antonia "Tony" Buddenbrook marry Herr Grunlich, a visibly successful businessman from Hamburg and a man seemingly of good taste and distinction, even if Tony doesn't like him.

Tony's poor opinion of her "chosen" mate isn't so inaccurate. As it turns out, within months after their wedding, Herr Grunlich is found out as a scoundrel, unworthy of all good society and especially of being wed to such a catch as Tony. The marriage promptly dissolves in divorce, a lamentable but necessary action which eventually puts the Buddenbrooks back into relatively modest standing among their peers. Other problems crop up though as Christian, the family's middle child chooses a life in the theater, a heretofore unheard-of and near scandalous profession to embark upon. As further indignities cause friction and highlight conflict, the family fortune, once worth nearly 100,000 marks, has now dwindled to an alarmingly low sum as collective debts force the once and still proud family to face reality.

Mann's novel is not so much about the family Buddenbrook epitomizing the ruling class as it is about their decline, a dissolution which parallels the demise of an entire epoch and the ultimate dismembering of the Hapsburgian Empire. Even as shrewd decisions are made by upstanding family members in order to preserve their "place", shifting paradigms of a world beyond their control force the family and indeed the whole of Germany to confront change and transition. Mann was one of the great commentators of his times. The turn-of-the-century changes affecting his native land, the growing nationalism, imperial transitions, political reconfigurations and the creeping advance of German militarism are perhaps best detailed through his exquisite works both fiction and non-fiction.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Writing / by Stephen King

Known as master of the macabre, Stephen King is more than just a superior storyteller, he's literally the embodiment of a life spent writing very entertaining and provocative fiction. His books just seem to have a way of attaching themselves to the reader. It’s irrelevant if you’re an aficionado of the horror genre, a casual fan of contemporary scare-thrillers or just a once-in-a-while reader, his prose is as accessible as it gets; his characters, their confrontations, the stories' settings, narratives and plot dynamics at once poignant, vivid and captivating. In this, his 2000 memoir detailing the how and why of his craft, King briefly describes his life as a writer beginning with his modest New England boyhood, his teaching days, initial attempts at publication, breakthrough novel Carrie and, finally, his over three decades of success as America’s premier horror novelist, not to mention one of the publishing world’s most marketable talents.

Describing his own relationship with the process of creating fiction in frank, succinct fashion and with open candor, King basically just tells it as he’s always viewed it, citing that writing is his “drug” and the reason he often spends weeks engrossed in nothing else but polishing his latest thriller. He also elaborates on some of the finer points of style and composition; things like creating characters, fashioning dialogue and manifesting original, provocative stories are thoroughly explained. Additionally highlighted are some of his own personal and surprisingly simple fundamentals to being a writer: writing well requires that you read a lot, “slay your darlings”, and that Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is still one of the most relevant guides to writing. (B KING)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Detour / by James Siegel

Paul and Joanna Breibard are childless Manhattan professionals who have traveled to Colombia to adopt what they hope to be their first child. But no sooner do they meet the newest addition to their family than they're kidnapped by left-wing militia who blackmail the couple, getting them to cooperate in a risky drug smuggling operation in exchange for their safety and the safety of their daughter. The plan involves Paul himself smuggling the drugs into the US alone. After being forced to swallow 36 condoms stuffed with cocaine, he's told he has 48 hours to deliver the contraband to a to-be-specified location in New Jersey. His failure to complete the transaction will mean death for both his wife and the baby.

After making it safely through customs and into America, Paul finds that his contact's residence has been destroyed, suspiciously having burnt to the ground overnight. Desperate, he contacts his faithful lawyer Miles Goldstein who links Paul up with Moshe Skolnick, a Russian mobster and character nearly as grisly as Paul's kidnappers. James Siegel has been compared to Dean Koontz and Harlan Coben as an author who writes action-packed thrill rides. His 2005 novel Detour was well-received by both fans and critics. Like Koontz, Siegel keeps the action suspenseful, writing in short paragraphs and swift, abrupt chapters usually ending in one cliffhanger or another. Readers who like these kinds of thrill rides will enjoy the near-warp speed pace of the novel, but those who like a little more substance to a character may not be so intrigued. The book does feature some creative sequences and is fairly unpredictable throughout. (FIC SIEGEL)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Beautiful Lies / by Lisa Unger

Connecticut native Lisa Unger has lived in the Netherlands, England and New Jersey and had a high-profile career in publicity prior to becoming a full-time author. Her 2007 crime novel Beautiful Lies was selected as an International Book of the Month and was a finalist for "Best Novel" among the International Thriller Writers Organization.

New York City freelance writer Ridley Jones becomes famous one day after rescuing a toddler who suddenly wanders out into a busy intersection. The publicity from her daring act has some quirky after-effects though as, soon afterwards, she receives an old photo of a man, an oddly familiar-looking woman and a young girl. Accompanying the photo is a note with the words "Are you my daughter?". Understandably puzzled, Ridley speaks to her parents who eagerly affirm she is in fact their rightful daughter by birth. Still uncertain and needing confirmation, Ridley, along with her new boyfriend Jake tries to track down the source of the strange letter, uncovering some remarkable details and shocking secrets in the process.

Between Ridley and Jake, things swiftly and compellingly escalate as aspects of Ridley's life become a swirl of treachery, betrayal and lies. Her family (parents in particular) are definitely hiding something; her path to the truth seems to become more obstructed at every turn. Finally it's her somewhat estranged Uncle Max, a real estate mogul turned philanthropist, who turns out to have be the most useful tool in Ridley's now near-desparate search. Ultimately Ridley unveils the truth about her mysterious past, her oddly-situated origins and a world she never new existed. Unger has a knack creating suspense-driven drama intermingled with well-fleshed out characters and intriguing romantic subplots. Readers will also enjoy how she describes the Big Apple, both its dark and shady side as well as its unmistakeable glamour and glitz.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed / by Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell is one of the more prolific crime fiction writers around, well-known by practically everyone even remotely into the genre. She's also tried her hand at several true crime books, her 2001 investigative account on Jack the Ripper claiming to have at last identified the real culprit responsible for the shockingly horrific murders of 5 (some say 6) prostitutes in London's east end during the summer and fall of 1888.
No serial killer can approach the infamy that the man known only by his pen name, Jack the Ripper, achieved in the late 1880's. One of the first to be classified as a "serial killer", Jack the Ripper was no doubt the nineteenth century's most notorious criminal, if not the most referenced murderer in all of history. Much of the attention surrounding the Ripper Murders is simply the fact that the real identity of the killer has remained unsolved, a condition only inflating the number of possible suspects, sparking numerous, ever-glamourized conspiracy theories and sustaining the ignominy of the real villain--whoever he may be. The case was not only ghastly in nature and method, it was peculiarly intriguing for a number of reasons: the social and political culture of the era, the murderer's indiscernible motives, loose theories involving celebrity suspects and the savagery of the crime contradicting modernist presumptions of civility. Mysterious clues left by the killer, and the he curious way in which the victims were "arranged"--each mangled corpse sprawled out on the ground usually with various internal organs missing--also contributed to the intrigue surrounding the case. Notes written to police at the time, letters claiming to be written by the killer and signed "Jack the Ripper", were used as evidence although no one was officially named as the prime suspect.
Cornwell's theory pins a man named Walter Sickert as the official murderer. An artist/painter of marginal fame and a man who kept a residence in the area of the murders during the period, Sickert was a gentleman who kept up with legitimate company and was known, even revered in certain circles. Yet he was also an individual who concealed a very secretive lifestyle. Since birth, Sickert suffered from a permanent sexual deformity, one which Cornwell postulates could have led to a violent, mysogynist disposition toward women and a need to act out his rage. Sickert's own artwork, Cornwell claims, even reflects Ripper-like undertones and particularly curious correlations to the Ripper murders, displaying denuded female figures positioned in strikingly similar patterns to that of the victims.
The book was actually a two year, multi-million dollar investigation (Cornwell traveled to England and actually purchased 19 of Sickert's original artworks to use as evidence) incorporating several highly sophisticated research techniques and DNA samplings. Yet despite all the effort, Cornwell was personally reviled by critics and fellow Ripperologists who stated that her investigation produced only limited circumstantial evidence; the context of which was solely conducive to her own theory and elicited facts which flew in the face of previously established patterns of evidence (e.g., Sickert was never, in over a century of scrupulously detailed analysis, among the 20 or so leading suspects and was even out of the country at indeterminate intervals during the murders).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Black Water (DVD) 2007 / a film by David Nehrlich & Andrew Traucki; starring Diana Glenn, Andy Rodoreda & Maeve Dermody

After spending the Christmas holiday at home, Australian sisters Grace and Lee along with Grace's husband Adam take their time traveling back to their jobs in Sydney, stopping off at various off-the-beaten-path locales, quaint remote lodges and assorted regional attractions. Yet terror finds them during a guided tour of a mangrove swamp when a vicious attack by a man-eating crocodile capsizes their boat, the beast killing the tour guide and leaving the trio trapped up a tree with the crocodile still lurking in the shallow water. Attempts to contact the outside world, gain access to the drifting boat and navigate the tree limbs in pursuit of a path out of the swamp prove futile, even fatal when Adam's efforts to retrieve the boat go awry and he too is taken under (and eaten) by the croc. Isolated, preyed upon and utterly alone, the stranded sisters await their fate with little hope of escape, rescue or survival.
What may suggest another generic creature feature from the outer casing, not to mention any preconceptions based on movies like Jaws, Cujo, King Kong or Jurassic Park, is actually an intriguingly gratifying film. The story, based on true accounts of crocodile attacks in this particular region of Australia, is less focused on the savagery of nature or man vs. beast battles and more concerned with the psychology of fear, the reactionary immobilization (both literally and figuratively) of an individual amidst stunningly perilous circumstances. A low-budget indie picture with little-to-no adapted or CGI effects (real crocodiles were used), Black Water transcends any limitations and emerges as an intense, moving experience.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance / by Stephen Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner

In 2005, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner wrote Freakonomics, a wildly successful book full of interesting stories and anecdotes about why incentives matter to consumers and how actions can have multiple, unforeseeable consequences. Many of these same speculations, weird coincidences and astounding correlatives fill their new book Superfreakonomics, the sequel to the original bestseller. Primary interest points included in this new volume concern the economical benefits of being a prostitute, how supplementing the atmosphere with sulfuric compounds might help solve global warming, why car seats may not be a safer alternative than seat belts and how walking home drunk may be a more dangerous alternative to driving home drunk.
Some parts of this book seem intended solely for offering quirky factoids on society rather than comment on how economic incentives really do have any practical application. Superfreakonomics is an easy, readable book to get into and most readers could finish it in two to three sittings. But it seems to enhance "economical" aspects of our lives which, while carrying some realistic weight, contain more charming and trivial significance than any authentic relevance. Leavitt and Dubner are well-researched, drawing their material from every conceivable field--economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, physics, etc.--and produce a book which is a very interesting read. But it doesn't seem to have any real objective, any purpose for advocating a need for being aware of why, say, certain shady, slightly unethical professions are sureproof get rich schemes while other law-abiding careers are doomed. Much of the book's concluding analysis sounds as if the authors are facilitating arguments for one cause or another simply for the sake of providing a better alternative.

New Christmas Fiction

The Gift: A Novel / by Cecilia Ahern
Hard-nosed workaholic Lou Steffen doesn’t have time for sentimental Christmas festivities until Gabe, a mysterious homeless man, subtly teaches Lou what truly matters and how precious the gift of Christmas really is.
The Christmas Dog / by Melody Carlson
Betty Kowalski is feeling more alone and wretched than usual this Christmas with the lack of friends or relatives to celebrate with and her neighbor’s home renovations driving her up a wall. But when a cute dog shows up on her doorstep one night, she gets quite an unexpected Christmas surprise.
The Christmas List / by Richard Paul Evans
One day just before Christmas, James Kier reads his own obituary in his hometown newspaper. At first he thinks it must be a joke until certain events prompt him to take the situation seriously.
Home In Time For Christmas / by Heather Graham
Melody Tarleton never expected to become close with a strange hitchhiker she almost runs over with her car. But a peculiar brand of Christmas magic soon helps her discover a love which transcends all boundaries.
The Memory Quilt: A Christmas Story for our Times / by T.D. Jakes
It’s Christmas time in Chicago and Lela, a single woman down on her luck, finds solace in her church’s Virgin Mary themed bible study and soon begins to look life through with new eyes.
A Christmas Blizzard / Garrison Keillor
Wealthy loner James Sparrow intends to spend Christmas in Hawaii until he’s abruptly summoned to his North Dakota hometown where his Aunt is deathly ill. Permanently detoured after a blizzard leaves him stranded at his childhood home, James is suddenly confronted by ghosts from his boyhood past.
A Wish For Christmas: A Cape Light Novel / by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer
This season the people of Cape Light confront their past while looking hesitantly toward the future: David is a war veteran returning home after the death of his mother, Jack has remarried and now must try and to reach out to his new stepdaughter, and crabby old Lillian Warwick may feel independent but circumstances soon force her to reach out to those she would otherwise shun