Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ghettonation: A Journey into the Land of Bling and the Home of the Shameless / by Cora Daniels

The original "ghetto" was a section of late Renaissance Venice where Jews were partitioned in to separate living quarters by Catholic authorities. Over the years, the term has evolved from a physically sequestered area of a city reserved for a certain demographic to something altogether different. Nowadays "ghetto" is a social and cultural phenomenon. It connotates a demeanor, appearance and a manner of affectation which identifies an individual with a certain class of people and various objects of a like association. It is a mindset not limited to a certain ethnic group and no longer reserved to specific geographic locations. It is found in urban areas as well as the most desirable suburbs; in corporate settings and living rooms, from Hollywood to the Heartland and abroad as a packaged item in a variety of mediums where its themes are reiterated and emulated.

From award-winning journalist and professor at NYU Cora Daniels comes a provocative, entertaining expose on "ghetto" culture. Few Americans remain uncensored from "ghetto" attitudes, appearances and lifestyles; and from its effect on individuals, communities and the American ideal. Daniels' shows how corporate America has essentially embraced the idea of a ghetto persona as a lucrative hip marketing tool, realizing its significant mainstream appeal and promoting it through the media, sidelining the implications that it's essentially a manner of social conduct which degrades women, undermines education and celebrates the worst negative stereotypes. It's a fun 'way' to be though. Throughout the book Daniels infuses humor and entertaining, colorful anecdotes as well as taking deliberate shots at a more than a select few public figures. For any readers completely out of the loop, one section is written entirely in ghetto slang and contains a snide, often derogatory glossary for many of the most commonly parroted terms. Ghettonation is a timely and engrossing report on a widely visible but controversial paradox of society. (307.3 DANIELS)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moral Disorder / by Margaret Atwood

Toronto native Margaret Atwood is not only one of Canadian literature's best authors, she's become something of a worldwide phenomenon duringher three-to-four decades long tenure as a truly recognizable talent. As a poet, novelist and short story writer, her insightful, sardonic voice is at once mysterious and lucid, her prose and arrangement of words an evocative display of brilliant art. Her 2006 semi-autobiographical novel (written in short story form) Moral Disorder is no exception to her long line of superior work. A thinkpiece and generational purview of life, love, fate and existence, the book reflects Atwood's one-of-a-kind take on the western tradition.

The initial, uneventful but precursory tale lays the framework which the rest will follow. Nell & Tig are an elderly couple at first seen discussing some sobering news over breakfast--it seems some Middle Eastern terrorist have murdered several war hostages--and though they're evidently concerned about it, the pair are visibly and emotionally distant, their own lives too much encumbered by their own misunderstood concerns and weighted anxieties. While this relatively subdued scene resonates mostly the external turmoil of the encircling world, that's exactly what the world internally is like for Nell--a mentally exhausted attitude of despondency and hapless emotion towards her life and the people in it.

The accompanying stories and episodes present a swirl Nell's life, both past and present, looking back on her childhood and young adulthood, her tentative teenage relationships and first job as a freelance editor. Things are fastforwarded to when Nell meets Oona, a life-wearied woman with two children and married to Tig; Nell soon after becomes the "second wife" amid fluctuating reactions. Nell's world is one of incohesion and relational dissonance, evoking a life bonded together by an isolated, soulless web of "moral disorder". Swooping back and forth in time and soberly assessing everything from fashion to children to social upheaval and inflation, Atwood's stories are as absorbing as they are dismal, extracting a gripping morbidity with both empathy and remote interest. (FIC ATWOOD)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work / by Matthew B. Crawford

Matt Crawford had just received a Ph.D. in philosophy, had been appointed a lucrative position with a corporate think tank which carried excellent benefits. He was, by all visible accounts, living the high life. Yet he was far from fulfilled, both professionally and personally, as he just couldn't see what function or purpose his work was having. This "knowledge work" of a purely intellectual bent dealt with a product which was a purely abstract entity, and of a nature he deemed as largely illegitimate for its solely conceptual, information substance. Soon afterwards, he became a motorcycle mechanic and today owns his own bike shop where he does not only what he loves to do, but performs work that he feels is far more fulfilling intrinsically--both at a operational and intellectual level.

The transition of our world from a world of the physical--first an agrarian and then an industrial society--to a world where work is done through purely informational transactions means that proficiency standards are often undefined. Contrarily, the tradesmen, a person who works manually with his or her hands with a physical substance as product must conform to the standards which the object itself demands (i.e., the car starts or it doesn't, light switches turn on or not at all, a toilet flushes or remains stopped up, etc.). Crawford knows his subject, or rather both his subjects, very well; both through long experience and intellectual understanding. He not only touches on the intricate attributes of manual work as a physical activity with mental attributes, but approaches it from a philosopher's mindset, deconstructing the parameters involved in the process of fixing a carburetor on a bike, paying close attention to the cognitive processes and acquired skill needed for successful application. Conversely, he diagrams the approach to the action of writing a research paper abstract, how multiple variables make for an inexact interpretation of what's acceptable and what's not. All in all this book is a very intriguing read, thought provoking on more than one level. (331 CRAWFORD)

Friday, February 19, 2010

My French Whore & The Woman Who Wouldn't / by Gene Wilder

Wilder is known to most people as a film actor and director in comedies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and The Producers. Having kept a low profile in the entertainment industry since the late eighties, he's recently he's taken up the craft of fiction, having published two short historical novels--My French Whore (2007) & The Woman Who Wouldn't (2008)--which resonate his own comedic yet endearing charm.

My French Whore
It's 1918 in Milwaukee and young Paul Peachy is a lowly railroad worker and struggling actor whose marriage, which has always been a little shaky, is seemingly on its last leg. Nearing his 30th birthday and desperate for something other than the old routine, Paul enlists
as an infantryman in the US Army during WWI only to find how miniscule his understanding of the world really is, his shock at the horrors of the trenches like nothing he could've ever conceived of. There is one thing in Paul's favor though: he speaks fluent German. This talent suddenly lands him in an interrogation room with a German spy named Harry Stroller who Paul then impersonates after going AWOL once he's been sent back to the front lines. Received by the Germans as a hero, Paul as Harry is given the royal treatment, benefits which include his own personal French prostitute Annie Breton. Gradually, he and Annie get to know each other outside of just sex, finding they have an improbable connection through their shared trials until Paul finds himself suddenly jerked back to reality, back to the war and ultimately back home. (FIC WILDER)

The Woman Who Wouldn't At the turn of the last century, American concert violinist Jeremy Spencer Webb is a successful musician until he goes crazy during a concert, erupting out of his seat, pouring water down a tuba and wreaking havoc in the horn section. At the advice of his sympathetic orchestra director, he travels to Germany where he resides at a spa for recovery and psychiatric evaluation. There, under the care of Dr. Karl Gross, a friend of a friend, Jeremy meets his literary hero Russian author Anton Chekhov with whom he discusses some of his deepest convictions. Jeremy is also introduced to a beautiful, young Belgian woman named Clara Mulpas. As his stay at the spa lengthens, Jeremy grows closer to Clara who, as it turns out, is battling terminal illness. Ultimately the two become inseparable and Jeremy learns about a form of love he'd never known previously (his first wife a bullying terror of a woman who'd left him some years ago). But with Clara's time running out, how will Jeremy come to grips with losing the joy he'd just come to know. (FIC WILDER)

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

In 1993 Greg Mortenson was descending from a failed attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. He got lost and ended up in a remote Pakistan village. Greg, raised in Tanzania by American missionary parents, was no stranger to experiencing different cultures, and he became invested in the people of the village, who shared with him what they had. With no road to the village and no money for remote areas, the children had no school, and a guest teacher came for only three days a week. As Mortenson watched 82 boys and 4 brave girls scratching sums in the dirt and ‘studying’ alone without supervision, his heart was constricted. He promised the village chief he would return to build them a school. Thus began his odyssey, which is now in its 17th year. Mortenson’s second book after this one, “Stones into Schools”, is told in the first person, while this one is written in the 3rd person. Some readers have commented that as a result, the first book does not fully reveal Greg’s personality. Following him in his quest, however, carries the potential to change the reader’s life.
Greg begins his journey by working as an emergency room medic in California, sleeping in his car, saving all he can, and writing letters to possible donors. Experiencing multiple disappointments and discouragements, he finally meets his first serious supporter, Dr. Jean Hoerni, a climber and physicist. Hoerni donates the money for the first school. The book follows Greg back and forth from Pakistan to the U.S., and later to Afghanistan, as men from similarly remote villages also ask for Greg’s help building schools. Water systems, hydropower plants, and health dispensaries also became part of the agenda of the Central Asia Institute, the foundation that Greg was urged to set up. What makes the book work, in my opinion, is the effort made to explain and describe the people Greg encounters, especially those in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Incredibly, Greg and fellow workers are in Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. His work can be seen as counteracting the rage and frustration felt by some concerning the United States, which spearheaded that attack and which continues to smolder in different parts of the world, particularly in Afghanistan. I look forward to reading his second book.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd

Although it's safe to say he had as many critics as admirers, Thomas Hardy barely seemed to notice. Unlike Dickens who embraced his many fans with welcomed arms, even seeming to thrive under public scrutiny, Hardy's relationship with his readers can only be described as one of careless indifference bordering on contempt. When his 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, though received moderately well by critics, threw his reading public into a a fit of outrage over the book's morbid content and perceived immorality, Hardy quit fiction altogether, focusing instead on poetry and short form prose until his death in 1928. Far From the Madding Crowd is one of his earliest and best-loved novels, confronting head-on the themes of country manners, feminine virtue, male obsession and unrequited love.

"The only superiority in women that is tolerable to the rival sex is, as a rule, that of the unconscious kind; but a superiority which recognizes itself may sometimes please by suggesting possibilities of capture to the subordinated man." p. 37

In the secluded, pastoral English county of Wessex, Gabriel Oak is a young, hard working farmer whose life becomes indelibly altered when he meets the spry, comely Bathsheba Everdene, a milkmaid from a neighboring farm. Though Gabriel's pursuits and courtship are not unencouraged, his honest proposal of marriage is turned down by the girl who soon relocates to another part of the county. When they next meet some months later, things have changed considerably. A terrible accident has killed off Gabriel's entire flock, forced the sale of his farm and thrust him into a life as hired hand while Bathsheba is now a moderately wealthy landowner, inheriting an estate and a considerable plot of land upon her uncle's death. By chance, when Gabriel happens upon a fire at Bathsheba's farm and spearheads the effort to extinguish it, his efforts are applauded by the locals and he is made the bailiff and estate manager under the Bathsheba's supervision.

Bathsheba's rather unconventional situation--young, single beautiful woman acting as sole proprietor to a large country estate--has caught the ear and eye of more than a few people in neighboring villages and surrounding countryside, most notably the wealthy, distinguished William Boldwood and the dashing Sergeant Francis Troy. Both men's courtship and subsequent entanglement with the immature, capricous Bathsheba are met with staggeringly ill consequences as the young woman's pride and stubborn wilfulness, Boldwood's covetous obsession, Troy's bigamy and hidden secrets culminate in each's bitter self-knowledge, agony and disgrace. It is only Gabriel's solemn, dutiful prudence and discretion which prevents Bathsheba herself from total ruin.

Written in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd was Hardy's 1st Wessex novel and offers, in ample measure, the details of English country life the author so cherished. Chiefly featured, however, is Hardy's strict devotion to the tenets of realism, his portrayal of man's bitterly brutal lot echoing his deepest convictions as fallible human nature and moral ineptitude form the book's central themes. The price of vanity, unforeseen consequences and a taste for the tragic are on full display: all four or five principle characters endure harsh circumstances--not always unjustifiably--and are invariably certain to suffer from their actions. Incidents such as the young Fanny Robin's pregnancy with Troy's bastard child (and death as a result of), Boldwood's murderous rampage, Bathsheba's humiliating abasement, and Gabriel's quiet longing foreshadow events in Hardy's later novels in which protagonists like Tess d'Urbeville and Jude Fawley are mercilessly plagued by relentless misfortune. In 'Madding Crowd' the fates still favour some semblance of grace and mercy though as the two primary lead characters, Gabriel and Bathsheba, are able to escape affliction, learn from their mistakes, and ultimately find love with each other. But as with all of Hardy's Victorian novels the real draw is the author's master hand at eliciting mood, setting and characterization, his skill, intuition and metaphorical dexterity a wonder to behold. (FIC HARDY)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lottery / by Patricia Wood

Perry Crandall of Everett, Washington is 32, mentally challenged, works in a boatyard and has just recently lost his grandmother ("Gram") to cancer. Slow-witted he may be (probably due to Asperger's; his illness is never identified), Perry is very, very good at one thing: sticking to a routine and taking things one step at a time. Which is why he's able to get by on his own at a ridiculously meager salary--$528/month--until the day he wins $12 million in the state lottery. Now everyone, including Perry's scumbag relatives--who'd cheated him out of his rightful inheritance and forced him out of Gram's house right after the funeral--are holding out their hands for money. Well-aware of his special new status and that others desire to take advantage of him (having been told he's the suggestive type by Gram most everyday of his life), Perry must now navigate a totally unfamiliar world where manipulation, deception and misinformation crop up at every turn.

Though the author keeps the reader guessing as to how the story will end, the resolution is justifiable and genuinely satisfying. Definitely taking a page from the Rain Man/Forrest Gump/Awakenings school of thought, Woods succeeds at portraying a mentally challenged person as a fully fleshed-out, well-functioning adult human being whose good-hearted, benevolent nature makes for a better world. Yet Wood does well to navigate away from oversentimentalism, carefully keeping both the plot and Perry's persona within the bounds of conceptual reality. The strength of this story is Perry's charm, which, matched to his superior ethical integrity, makes for one appealing read, pleasantly fulfilling right up until the conclusion. (FIC WOOD)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Crazy for the Storm: a Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad

Norman Ollestad had an unusual upbringing. It was not just that his parents were into a surfing hippie lifestyle in southern California, but he had a father who was committed to experiencing the utmost in sports and equally committed to ensuring that his son Norman followed in his footsteps. Norman was on the ski slopes at age three and ski racing and surfing on his own in elementary school. The starting point for the story is the day roughly 30 years ago when Norman, his father and father’s girlfriend are in a rented Cessna plane in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, and they crash. At this point Norman is 11 years old. As he describes the crash and its aftermath, this account is interspersed with a “memoir” recounting his life starting from six months before the crash. His parents are divorced, and Norman lives with his Mom and her boyfriend Nick. Nick doesn’t do sports like Norman and his Dad, but he also pushes Norman, ostensibly to guide Norman into responsible thinking, but too often criticizing and punishing him just to exercise control. Some readers may find the book’s structure awkward, with the tense post-crash survival narrative switching back to times Norman was dragged into other challenging situations by his Dad, forced to cope against his own inclination. After the crash, however, Norman is virtually alone as his Dad has been killed and Norman has to try and get himself and his Dad’s injured whiny girlfriend off the steep icy slope they crashed on. Hailed by the media as a “boy wonder” for making it down off that mountain, the book shows how having experienced fear and coping with fearful challenges in his past gave him the ability to survive the near- death scenario. The book follows Norman about two years past the event – watching him experience pain and shut down and struggle. The book does a good job of answering a lot of questions we might have about fate, unfairness, and what kind of essential attitudes we need for not just surviving, but embracing and incorporating challenges in our lives.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus' Great Discovery to the War on Terror / by Joseph Schweikart and Michael Allen

The authors of this book feel that too many high school and college history texts are so motivated by political correctness that they disproportionately focus on the bad of shameful events in American history as a way of placating the public. From slavery to the fate of the Native Americans to the stock market crash, McCarthyism, Vietnam and so on, these negative events receive more attention than the more honorable, or patriotic subject matter. Schweikart and Allen attempt to set the record straight by re-examining our nation's historical elements through a patriotic perspective, explaining, in an enlightened manner though without unsubstantiating the relevant topics, why certain events occurred as they did and discussing the actual events in the context of the principles the nation strove to demonstrate. America, was and still is the beacon of freedom for all nations, the authors say, and was not only effective in establishing these self-evident truths in its own land, but also in persevering them in other countries by working to eradicate social abuse and oppression throughout the world. (973 SCHWEIKA)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Then We Came to The End / by Joshua Ferris

Downsizing is causing some nasty side-effects at one Chicago advertising agency where the firings of some of the company's most tenured employees has everyone panicked. The office atmosphere, usually rife with turmoil during good times, now resembles a Hospital waiting room as a steady stream of stress, dismay and worked-up indignation force workers to find ever-more frantic ways of coping with the situation. Copywriter and quote-meister extraordinaire Tom Mota doles out daily doses of transcedentalist wisdom amidst his routine tirades while stuffy, workaholic Joe Pope's pretentious ramblings continue to provoke office pranksters towards ever-inventive ways of pulling one over on him. Meanwhile the fast-sinking Carl Garbedian tries to calm his anxiety by "borrowing" deskmate Janine Gorjanc's medication (intending to give it back as soon as he's diagnosed with what he feels is the same thing). Rumors that supervisor Lynn Mason has breast cancer inspire awkward sympathy and compassion but mostly just provide welcome gossip about the head woman herself who's now doubly overwhelmed. One by one, as workers are laid off, the entire office desperately tries to maintain some semblance of composure.

In an age when corporate satire is in vogue and humor of the pathetic is running itself into the ground, everyone is trying to get in on the joke. And while Ferris' Dibert-esque tale is somewhate original with its first-person plural narration and observant reflections, it still treads down the already-been-done path as numerous other projects featured on multiple mediums ("The Office", Office Space, The Corporation, The Informant, Personal Days: A Novel / by Ed Park, Smartest Guys in the Room, etc.). Not that the book's badly written or fated not to entertain. Readers will appreciate Ferris black humor, if not for it's originality, then for it's depiction of human nature amid a suspended crisis. (FIC FERRIS)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Help: A Novel / by Kathryn Stockett

In 1962 with neither the married/engaged-to-be-married status achieved by her sorority sister cohorts nor the means to do much else, recent Ole Miss grad Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan has reluctantly returned to her parents' Jackson home. Desperately hoping to become a real writer so she can move to New York City and spurred on by the advice of a publisher who's told Skeeter to "write about what disturbs her", she turns to the world inside her own home for material. She focuses on "the help", the black women on whom her family and other white families in town rely on for housework and nanny duties. At first this seems a tall task. Skeeter's own world is limited to her old school chums and gossipy Junior League set, all with their closed minded beliefs centering around the pervading racist attitudes and unspoken caste standards of the era. And while Skeeter is neither racist nor an elitist, she's also a bit naive and uninformed when it comes to understanding the social distinctions in society. Inspiration and insight find Skeeter though after meeting Aibileen, a maid who's raised 17 children (none her own), and Aibileen's outspoken friend Minny who's employed by a young, clueless "poor white trash" girl recently married to a ritzy, local entrepeneur.

Stockett's book, basically centered around Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny's experiences, is informative, well-rounded and sentimental though never without subtle humor or satire. The reader is showed how the young Skeeter gains the courage to break down her own personal boundaries and pursue her dreams even as these same sentiments reasonate with other characters at a broader level. Poignant, layered and full of heart yet not lacking for edge factor, Stockett has achieved a brilliant story of social awakening during the burgeoning Civil Rights era. (FIC STOCKETT)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lake of Dead Languages / by Carol Goodman

It's been 20 years since Jane Hudson has been home; both to her hometown in upstate New York and remnants of a rather dismal childhood but also to Heart Lake Academy, the prestigious all-girls prep school she attended on scholarship. Now after marrying, having a child, and separating from her husband, Jane along with her 4-year-old daughter Olivia has returned to the school as an interim teacher of Latin. Heart Lake, both the school and the actual lake it sits on, carries a distinctively tragic history, one which includes Jane at an especially personal level. In the early part of the institution's existence, three sisters, all daughters of the school's founder Iris Crevecouer were drowned in the lake together one night, their bodies never found. Ever since then the school has endured the legacy of the Crevecoeur Curse--untimely deaths and accidents involving subsequent students attributed to the dour 'legend of the lake'. Jane's arrival marks the sixtieth year since the Crevecouer girls deaths. It's also twenty years since the calamitous events of Jane's senior year when her two roommates Dierdre and Lucy along with a male friend, Lucy's brother Matt, drowned during a bizarre incident over the Christmas holiday, the circumstances surrounding each's death still a mystery.

Almost immediately upon Jane's return, strange things begin happening. At first, it's just a set of eery coincidences like Olivia's odd ability to maneuver over rocks on the lake without getting her shoes wet, or misplaced items in the classroom turning up in totally random places. But after pages from Jane's old, thought-to-be-lost diary begin mysteriously reappearing, intended for only her to find and possibly as a threat, it's obvious that something really, really weird is going on. The death of another student--dredged up in the lake though officially ruled a suicide--forces the focus fully into the context of Heart Lake's "curse" as buried secrets are unearthed and treacherous dealings push Jane to the forefront of the drama as the story nears its stunning climax.

Goodman's debut novel is a winner. An intricately plotted and captivating tale, it inevitably draws the reader into the story as the dark and shocking secrets of Jane's adolescence and the implications placed on her life now erect a fascinating scenario. Told in flashback mode with alternate chapters returning the story to the present, the reader becomes immersed in the murky world of youth and innocence, passion, guilt and restrained instinct. Sexual rites of passage, pagan rituals and forbidden love all come together as the author brilliantly meshes legend, myth and reality into an evocative tale of deception, misinterpretation, long-buried secrets and upheld lies.

Thank You For The Music ♪♪

ABBA Super Troupers: A Celebratory Film from Waterloo to Mamma Mia! (DVD)
Say what you will about their peppy rhythms, folksy gaiety and ridiculous outfits, not to mention bankable good looks, ABBA had some catchy tunes--quite a lot frankly. By the late 1970’s, they were Sweden’s biggest export, more marketable than Volvo and so wildly successful (their rabid fans frequently so uncontrollably frenzied the foursome would be trapped in their hotel) that popularity partially contributed to their disbandment.
Often overlooked in the context of the band’s tacky getup and mammoth commercial success (grossing over $1 million per day) was their talent. Composed of two married couples Bjorn Ulvaeus/Agnetha Falkstog and Benny Andersson/Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad (hence each member’s first letter of their first name forming the band’s title), the quartet had an astonishing blend of musical skill, artistic ingenuity and vocal harmony. Immediately identifiable, basically on every track (and of course in the existing video footage), are the two women usually singing in unison. Both sopranos, each possessed unmatched angelic voices with extraordinary range, strength and command, able to execute complex, vocally rigorous melodies synchronized within exhausting multi-octave songs. Agnetha’s routinely recognized among the premier female vocalists of the twentieth century with Frida not far behind. It was the incomparable tandem of Benny and Bjorn though, composer/keyboardist and lyricist/guitar player respectively, which essentially made the group what it was, the pair virtually a machine cranking out hit after hit after hit at their Stockholm studio. Production engineer Michael Tretow, who mixed each record with ample amounts of synthesized material, would help give ABBA its trademark feel-good sound.
ABBA Super Troupers is a typical music documentary, conventionally profiling the supergroup’s folk-rock roots, its evolution as a Swedish pop band, swift movement up the European billboard charts and international stardom with a raucous fanbase (particularly in the UK and Australia). Yet the film justifiably reveals the essence of the band's phenomenon, detailing their proficiency at creating such an appealing brand of pop music and how the relatively normal coming together of four exceptionally gifted artists produced such a substantial collection of timeless songs. Especially apparent is how the heart of ABBA, the likely reason for its immense success, was their artistic passion and resonance. They really were in it purely for the music. The group's disintegration in 1982, initiated by each couple’s divorce along with Agnetha's growing agoraphobia and reluctance to travel, was the true end. All inquiries into reuniting are just that, questions, put to a stop immediately with each member ardently opposed to a comeback—they were offered a sum of over $1 Billion to do a reunion tour and promptly turned it down—considering any attempt at reunification to be a blight on the original ten-year trek.