Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ravens / by George Dawes Green

The Boatwrights of Brunswick, Georgia are typical (though not stereotypical) southerners. Not establishment, not country club, not new money but not trailer trash. They're small towners with customarily demure small town ways. But like all Americans, they dream big. Especially mom Patsy, whose weekly devotion to the state lotto drawing is a religion unto itself, and college-age daughter Tara whose more modest ambitions include community college and moving out of the house. Dull-but-honest father Mitch, owner of a copy shop, and 8-year-old Jase tend to go with the flow orchestrated by their female counterparts. Their lives all change one Saturday night when Patsy's dream (unbeknownst to Patsy initially; Tara possessing the winning ticket) inconceivably comes true--to the tune of $318 million.

Friends since way back, Shaw and Romeo are two jobless nobodies escaping their dingy Ohio roots and heading south where ambitions of a better life in sunny Florida await their pending arrival. But when, by chance, they stop off at a gas station where a winning lotto ticket was recently purchased, their palm-tree dreams are delayed just a tad so they (particularly Romeo) can cook up an extortion scam to get at least a piece of all that money; of which the winner, being from this podunk nowheresville, would never know what to do with anyway. And so, using a some quite orthodox methods of finding their prey--a hint overheard at the gas station leading to some savvy cross-referencing of a few online business directories and social networks--the pair are in a position to execute what they feel is a convenient enough heist. But when their amateurish plan is put into motion, unforeseen variables inevitably create a far more complicated scenario than originally anticipated.
Green, author of Caveman's Valentine, knows how to write characters. The story's four or five primary people are well-enhanced, each fleshed out enough to keep the reader interested and reinforce the authenticity in what's really an oft-conceived premise, providing welcomed simplicity and a straightforward method to executing the plot. Books about lottery winners can easily become outrageous or ridiculous, but Ravens executes the story with more practicality than most. Tara's reactions, especially, are refreshingly realistic, mirroring most people's vision of what they would do if it happened to them--calmly and discretely going about their business as if nothing special happened all the while excitedly plotting a long-subdued fantasy life. Part black comedy, part thriller and part love story, the book's multiple narrative style handles things well. What's intended to be a critical crisis situation comes across in pragmatic but unpredictable fashion, the reader in on things with a good feel for the primary players involved, but still pleasantly surprised by twists and developments along the way.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Mexican Mafia / by Tony Rafael

What originally began as a territorial street gang in the heart of Los Angeles in the fifties took only a few short years to become one of the largest, most heavily involved prison gangs in the world. The Mexican Mafia, as it's called, has been directly or indirectly responsible for thousands of homicides, literally hundreds every year in California alone; most of which have been authorized by long-term prison inmates and well-organized groups of incarcerated individuals. Operating largely outside the realm of public knowledge and too often projecting its influence beyond the scope of police authorities and corrections officials, the Mexican Mafia is centrally integrated within virtually all existing hispanic street gangs in California, controlling all aspects of drug trafficking and narcotics distribution through a vast network of street pushers and drug dealers.

Over time, the syndicate has evolved from a central entity to a multinational conglomerate, expanding its geographic domain and proliferating its operations beyond drug sales, extortion and murder and into illegal arms dealing, political strong-arming and police corruption. Underground journalist and long-time guerilla reporter Tony Rafael exposes the ins and outs of one of America's most notorious criminal enterprises, erasing all preconceived public notions about the street gang infrastructure and involvement (ex. prison mafia heads often orchestrate anti-drug, anti-gang campaigns within the same neighborhoods they infiltrate the most murders, drug deals and gang activity). In an age when awareness about the criminal element in our society couldn't be more prevalent, this in-depth case study provides a broadly revealing, eye-opening analysis of organized crime in the modern era. (364.1 RAFAEL)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wake Up Dead: A Thriller / by Roger Smith

When car thieves Disco and Godwynn pull a job on a spiffy-looking Mercedes one sweltering Cape Town night, little do they suspect they're stealing more than just a car, because more than one person is just a tad bit interested in this particular vehicle, its contents and passengers. The victims of the carjacking, Roxy Palmer, a former runway model, and her husband Joe had been on their way to deliver a hefty sum of laundered cash to a local mercenary outfit when the hit came, leaving Joe murdered and Roxy temporarily at a loss for her next move before she makes a daring choice to pursue her husband's murderers and retrieve the money.

Meanwhile, Billy Afrika, a marine just returned from a soldiering stint in Iraq, knows that Roxy knows where the money, his money--funds owed him by his mercenary boss--can be found and will stop at nothing to get it. Just out of jail, a dangerous psychopath named Piper is also looking for something of 'his'--former cellmate Disco. Piper does things with regard for his convenience only, evidenced with his exceedingly bloody break out of prison after which he wastes no time in employing the same murdering tactics to find his former lover. As the action and suspense escalates, so does the tension as all the players involved sense that this cat and mouse game will soon culminate in nothing short of an all out bloodbath.

Hailing from South Africa, Roger Smith has crafted a gripping thrillride of a novel and a worthy follow-up to his breakout debut, the unanimously lauded Mixed Blood. Reminiscent of Elmore Leonard where sequencing, action and violence are at the forefront of the story, Smith handily incorporates enough clever dialogue to match his fast-moving characters and their volatile situations. Don't look for too much depth to the protagonists; most won't be around long enough for you to get a feel for anyway. In addition to the rapid pace and sleek narrative, another element adding texture to the book is the setting. Cape Town is currently a burgeoning metropolis, uniquely located, economically lucrative and as socially diverse as any of its Northern Hemisphere counterparts. It's a hotbed for well-conceived fiction like this to use as a background. (FIC SMITH) 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Labor Day: A Novel / by Joyce Maynard

13-year-old Henry leads a rather dismal life. His parents are recently divorced (his father's remarried with another family), he's underdeveloped, no good at sports, his social life's non-existent and he's completely ignored by girls. Plus, living at home with his seriously depressed mother Adele is far too emotionally taxing for a kid his age to deal with. But everything changes one Labor Day weekend when a mysterious drifter named Frank, an escaped convict, serendipitously becomes an intimate part of Henry's world.

Through a sequence of events in which Frank basically holds Henry and Adele hostage, the threesome get to know each other on very intimate terms. In addition to making Adele feel needed (though with admittedly unorthodox tactics) Frank teaches Henry about life, lessons he's seemingly primed for learning. In the course of their five days together, Henry learns how to throw a baseball, the trick to getting a piecrust just right, some cryptic secrets about the opposite sex, what family really means and the ageless rule of selfless love.

Maynard, author of To Die For and Where Love Goes, writes a very readable book. Labor Day, as a story, is as accessible to teenagers as it is to seniors, retaining its authenticity and timeless themes while entertaining its audience with a tender, but not too sappy scenario. Henry is like many youths just on the brink of adolescence--timid, awkward and confused. And while his first-person narration gives more details than interpretations, the fundamental truths of his predicament are well-implemented and ultimately revealed as the story is played out in the course of his encounter with Frank, a fairy godmother/guardian angel of sorts, who orchestrates a marked turning point in Henry's life. (FIC MAYNARD)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taxi Driver (1976) DVD / a film by Martin Scorcese; w/ screenplay by Paul Schrader; starring Robert Deniro

"The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people."

Travis Bickle is a man cut off, shut out so systematically, so repeatedly by others that he's become an individual on the edge--in more ways than one. An ex-GI in New York City, he drives a taxi as both a means to make money and to remedy his chronic insomnia,"I ride around most nights--subways, buses--but you know, if I'm gonna do that, I might as well get paid for it". Even as an outcast Travis is immersed in the world around him, existing on the periphery of that "other" world to which he can never belong yet which he finds alluring nonetheless. His job introduces him to broad cross section of the detestably vulgar society he inhabits: sleazy businessmen nightly copulating with prostitutes in the backseat, preoccupied politicians with their scheming agendas, haughty, unobtainably beautiful women and enraged husbands plotting revenge against their cheating wives. It's a culture he's both repulsed by and awkwardly drawn to, his own social alienation and sexual frustration routinely outlet through frequent visits to adult bookstores and porno theatres where hard-core films offer a voyeuristic glimpse of the deviant world operating around him. But as his thoughts and habits grow more obsessive and the veracity of his isolation is laid out before him ("Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man . . ."), Travis' mental stability falters as insanity creeps in replacing his rationality with a radical vision for an ultimate resolution.

In Scorcese's timeless film adapted from Paul Schrader's inimitable screenplay, Travis Bickle really is "God's lonely man", if merely because he's everyman's "lonely man". Everyone can empathize with the emotional status of Travis' situation and most know the feeling resulting from limited social interaction or an inability to connect. Most deal with it better than Travis does. Taxi Driver is a brilliant nightmare*, and, like most real nightmares, little to nothing is gathered as to the particulars of unfolding events. The audience never learns about Travis background, where he's from or why he lives in New York; only that he was once a marine and that likely he served in Vietnam, and even that's barely hinted at. The film relies heavily (considerably more so than most other American movies) on suggestive characterization, barely establishing the framework for a story, subtly insinuating mood and offering ambiguous at best inferences for the motives and subsequent action. Symbolism and allegory are heavily involved: the taxi cab acting as Travis' portal to the world, his vessel (and insulation) on the road of life; long, panning shots seen from the cab's point of view mirroring the exterior world's separate, unattached livelihood; intimate, close-ups during the film's most violent sequences as opposed to the more distant, retreating shots observed during Travis' conversations with others emphasizing personal rejection having greater weight than a destructive mindset, etc. Perhaps more than any other Scorcese film, Taxi Driver warrants the conscious involvement of the viewer, demanding attention at an interpretive level and requiring evaluation, analysis and judgement through individualized perceptions, a likely reason it continues as a classic in American cinema. (DVD TAXI)

*Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Be careful reading this book. It could change your life, or at least your eating habits. Jonathan Foer has made a name for himself with his two books, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and this third book is getting just as much attention, if not more. The book is all about “factory farming”, which is most of the farming done in this country, and the kind of farming that is on the increase in the rest of the world. It all started supposedly when a woman who raised chickens got 500 chicks instead of 50 by mistake but tried raising them indoors and gave them food supplements (this was in 1923) and ended up with a new and different take on animal agriculture. Foer has done a lot of research, and his reportage is delivered with musings on what food is, what animals are, and how we relate to animals.
This book is not making a case for vegetarianism; it’s simply revealing the full fledged massive operations of raising, transporting and killing enormous amounts of animals to supply our restaurants, fast food eateries, and supermarkets. Foer makes a concerted effort to include voices from all sides of the mega meat industry – a factory farmer, meat packing employees, farmers trying to raise and kill animals humanely, slaughter house owners, government inspectors, animal rights activists. He gives you the facts slowly...and each description of how animals are treated (chickens, pigs, cows) is presented as part of an unfolding dialogue on how we can eat meat without sanctioning such cruelty. All that said, I haven’t ever wanted to be a vegetarian – but after reading this book, I just can’t eat meat from anywhere. I did buy some recently from Whole Foods, where I was assured that this meat was humanely raised, but then realized afterward that they couldn’t guarantee humane killing since they had to send the animals to packing plants. If you can’t believe that I’m even thinking along these lines, you should try the book. I’d be really interested to hear what other readers think.

Friday, March 12, 2010

New Humorous Fiction

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones / by Alexander McCall Smith
A quirky set of circumstances is currently underway at 44 Scotland St. where six-year-old Bertie is trying to get out of the cub scouts, Domenica tries to cure her loneliness, and bachelor Cyril falls helplessly in love with a sexy model.

Nanny Returns: A Novel / by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
It’s been twelve years since Nan Hutchinson left her nanny job with the formidable Mr. & Mrs. X and their darling but neglected son Grayer. Now married, Nan returns to Manhattan to try and rescue Grayer and his younger brother Stilton from their cold, soulless home life.

Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter / by Lisa Patton
Southern Belle and prototypical daddy’s girl agrees to follow her husband, Baker, from their Memphis home to Vermont where he plans to own and operate a small country inn. But when Baker leaves her for another woman, Leelee must face a world of sudden change and transition she never anticipated.

The Pint Man: A Novel / by Steven Rushin
Sportswriter and veteran journalist Rushin pens his first novel about an aimless, jobless barfly. Rodney Poole is an unemployed and unambitious middle-aged man who spends most of his time at a New York City bar until he meets a mysterious woman who seems to actually like him.

Callisto: A Novel / by Torsen Krol
Odell Deefus of Yoder, Wyoming is a big dumb Hick who, feeling his life is going nowhere in Yoder, plans to enlist in the army. But before he can even sign up, a wacky incident involving his pickup truck sets off a zany string of far-out capers with hilarious consequences.

How to Rob an Armored Car / by Iain Levison
Three hapless youths who are fed up with their dismal lives in a rundown Pennsylvania coal town decide to steal a car, an act setting off a string of further mischief and mayhem for the bumbling amateur criminals.

A Bump in the Road: From Happy Hour to Baby Shower / by Maureen Lipinski
Party girl Claire Finnegan loves a good time, always ready and willing for a night on the town accompanied by some strong elixirs. But after finding out she’s pregnant, how can all her old habits be subdued in favor of a less cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kierkegaard: An Introduction / by C. Stephens Evans

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a 19th century Danish philosopher who has been called the "Father of Existentialism". As one of the leading influences in the development of 20th century philosophy, his work has helped establish themes in theology and psychology as well as lay the groundwork for the Postmodern cultural movement. As both a philosopher and advocate for change, Kierkegaard was never appreciated in his time. He unpopularly critcized aspects of the philosophical systems that were brought on by philosophers such as German rationalist G.F.W. Hegel, Fichte and devotees of the same school of thought while simultaneously incorporating the outmoded Socratic model of philosophy into his work. Additionally, later on in life, his harsh indictment of the Danish Lutheran church largely ostracized him in his own hometown of Copenhagen.

One of Kierkegaard's most recurrent themes, and likely his most identifiable maxim, is the issue of subjectivity, that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity." Truth, Kierkegaard claimed, can never be a relegated to merely the assertaining and implementation of certain facts and principles. Facts are important initially, but also important, is the mode of how an individual relates himself to said facts and fundamentally established actualities. Ethically, the conclusion can be drawn that one's actions in regard to objective truths (subjectivity) supersedes the degree of validity in the actual objective truths themselves.

As well as discussing Kierkegaard's precepts on truth and subjectivity, author Evans exposes the philosopher's attitudes and theories on indirect communication in which he allocates three 'stages' or 'spheres' of human life as a developmental existence. With regard to faith, and in particular Kierkegaard's own deeply conflicted views on Christianity, Evans showcases how his 'teleological suspension of the ethical' from his treatise "On Fear And Trembling" in a simple, easily understood format. Also, the book contrasts him to famous thinkers both past and present, describing him as a uniquely brilliant intellctual who offers intriguing answers to complex philosophical questions. (198.9 EVANS)