Friday, May 28, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
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Monday, May 24, 2010
"I'm not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they're working on you". (p. 208)
"But I tried, though." (p. 121)
All social deviant Randle McMurphy wanted was to avoid hard time. A free-wheeling, happy go-lucky and thoroughly unapologetic individual, McMurphy has recently been convicted on a battery charge to go along with his lengthy list of prior offenses. Thinking a mental institution a better alternative to jail, he feigns insanity for the purpose of serving out, what he thinks, will be an easier sentence. He arrives expecting something not dissimilar to a vacation, but finds to his disappointment, that the asylum is no cake walk. The ward to which McMurphy is sent is run by the imperious, domineering Nurse Ratched, or the "Big Nurse", whose unchallenged authority has systematically subjugated all the (male) patients into a wretched lot of despairing, emasculated, and hopelessly dysfunctional individuals.
McMurphy's arrival instantly changes things. His irrepressible charm, vibrant energy, coarse nature and overt references to Nurse Ratched's sexuality immediately wins over the other patients who feel, for the first time in a long time, the giddy thrill of rebellion and self-empowerment. Among them is the oversized Native Amerian "Chief" Bromden, a self-repressed deaf mute who shares a room with McMurphy and proceeds to relate all of his colorful, entertaining exploits. Through McMurphy's example, everyone suddenly finds "life" in everything from morning meals to group therapy sessions to the world beyond the ward. But the temporary wave of insubordination hasn't totally overwhelmed Nurse Ratched who combats McMurphy's antics with her own cold, derisive acts of restriction and subjection. Soon the pair's escalating battle for control of the ward becomes an all out war, one which can't help but get ugly, and which may define far more than just who's in charge.
'Cuckoo's Nest' really is brilliant book, timeless in its own unique way. And though most may only know the story (as well as the title) from the award-winning film adaptation, the novel resonates at an especially superior level. Just the premise is as idiosyncratic as anything before or sense. Kesey evokes a myriad of psychological and existential themes, primarily with the character of McMurphy, but also through the transformation of the other patients like Chief Bromden, McMurphy's inadvertent proselyte who assumes the role of narrator. Dynamically cultivated through the figures of both McMurphy and the Chief is not just a story, but a thinkpiece on dehumanization, the limiting power of institutions, practical human experience, self-revelation and sexual identity. Through McMurphy, the other patients, many of them interred voluntarily, learn to live the lives they're too afraid to live. They're allowed the freedom and confidence to, for the first time, refute the overpowering condemnation of the institutional realm--"The Combine"--which has succeeded in subduing their natural instincts and inhibitions for so long.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Just one week before the U.S. publication of the conclusion to Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, (which began with The girl with the dragon tattoo) the NY Times Magazine has published a lengthy article on Stieg Larsson's legacy in Sweden and the fight between his father, brother and Stieg's long-time live-in, Eva Gabrielsson, over the rights to control his literary legacy. The story is fascinating and sad, and truly sounds like something that could appear as a plot point in one of Larsson's books. There are even some conspiracy theorists who speculate that Larsson didn't actually write the books or that he was really murdered instead of having a heart attack. Click here for a link to the article.
The NY Times also reports that Ms. Gabrielsson is in possession of about three-quarters of a 4th, unfinished book in the series -- so we may get more of Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander after all. The girl who kicked the hornet's nest is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on May 25th. Careful, this series is addictive.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Monday, May 17, 2010
Thursday, May 13, 2010
The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium, An Englishman's World / by Robert Lacey & Danny Danziger
England in the year 1000 was still largely Anglo-Saxon. The Norman Conquest would not take place until 1066 when the entire social and demographical landscape would change permanently as the nobility and landowning entities would be transplanted by French-speaking invaders from nearby Brittany (France). Without a unified nation and with only a barely established monarch, Aethelred the Unready, ruling the larger part of the southwest portion (Wessex) of the country, the land and people were vulnerable but composed. There was peace and even prosperity during this period, larger landowners (still separate from the feudal system which would arrive with the Normans) orchestrating the cultivation of the land through peasants and lower level farmers. During hard times, towns and villages banded together and forged their way through it, while in better times the societies even thrived with frequent agricultural surpluses appearing on record despite notable accounts of scarcity and famine.
One thing both the authors and most people today would agree on is the correlation of illiteracy and superstition. The high concentration of pietist individuals, along with prevalent mystical interpretations of nature and reports of fantastical beings or supernatural occurrences could be directly attributed (in most cases) to a thoroughly uneducated populace. Only about 1 percent of the country could read, write or dictate early English, and few beyond that were able to read or write Latin. Consequently, records from the era are sparse, and that's being generous. Marginally few detailed transcripts, or personal accounts outside what the local Bishops and monasteries preserved have survived through the years. Though a decade removed from its initial publication, The Year 1000 is, more than anything, an entertaining read, more than worth it for curious history buffs or readers with inquiring minds.
Monday, May 10, 2010
Cuidad de Deus (City of God) DVD (2002) / a film by Fernando Mireilles; starring Alexander Rodriques
Buscape "Rocket" is a teenager and aspiring photographer in Rio de Janeiro when he begins to tell his story, adamantly clear about how his place in the world came to be. The sprawling slums outside Rio didn't happen by accident, he says. They were built by the government in the 1950's for the purpose of relocating the poor outside the city center. By the 1970's and at present, the favela--as it's still known--has grown into a desperately dangerous place, a place rampant with lawlessness where gangs not only operate thriving drug businesses, but control many aspects daily domestic life. The slum has become a city in itself, even tagged with the ironical label of Cuidad de Deus (City of God). In the City of God, ordinary citizens are literally caught in the crossfire (the movie's climactic sequence and the point where Rocket begins his tale is, in effect, this very situation). Their lives are hopeless in nearly every respect, equally meaningless to both the ruthless druglords and municipal authorities who constantly jockey for power in the streets.
Rocket has lived side-by-side with the gangs since his early youth. Drug kingpins and gang co-leaders Lil' Ze and Bené have even accommodated his artistic ambitions, incorporating his ties to the local media for personal glamour and using photo ops to further their influence. With murder and destruction commonplace in the City of God, lives are short and violence is inevitable. Soon after the sociopathic Ze offs another headstrong rebel (Ze having previously raped the man's girlfriend) a new wave of heavy violence hits the streets. Only this time, Rocket has been secretly employed by the local law and order, one of a small handful of only partially corrupted entities, who plan to employ his unique abilities to infiltrate Ze's gang and hopefully put an end to the current wave of carnage.
Most non-third worlders are aware, to some degree, of the plight of the masses living in places like the City of God. Dictatorial regimes, corrupt governments, the lack of a middle class, etc. have always existed, giving rise to disadvantage, disorder and poverty as the only certainty. But nothing sheds light on the reality of things quite like a movie the caliber of Cuidad de Deus. The film neither preaches nor panders, but it does show, with incandescent clarity, how the purity of love is smothered by a world where death and destruction reign supreme and senseless violence is far too great an adversary for peace and stability. Take for instance the scene in which Lil' Ze effectively begins his life of crime as a pre-adolescent, strolling into a brothel one night, laughing with glee as he guns down around 25 defenseless souls before riding away in a stolen car with the proceeds of the evening's excursion. Or the scene near the end of the film where another young boy, unnamed but obviously representing the next generation of up and coming hoods, must shoot his best friend to test his allegiance. It becomes shockingly clear to everyone watching that things happen on a whim in the City of God. Comradery and affection mean nothing when life is this cheap.
Saturday, May 8, 2010
John Le Carré is the pen name for David John Moore Cornwell, a former operative in the MI5 and MI6 departments of the British secret service who's been a full-time author of espionage novels for several decades. Le Carre's 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was an international best-seller and established the author as a luminary new talent in spy fiction. Numerous other successes would follow in later years. Among his all-time most popular works are those comprising "The Karla Trilogy" which document the pursuit of a rival Soviet agent, code name "Karla". Smiley's People (1979), the final book in the series, is a shining example of Le Carré at his best.
"Do you know why they call Karla 'The Sandman'? He has a way of putting to sleep whoever gets close to him."
George Smiley has effectually been "retired off" from his job with the British secret service department known as "The Circus" after an incident in which a rogue agent working under him, a mole, was caught leaking information to the enemy. But when an old friend and former allied agent Vladimir (code name "The General") desperately relays a message to special branch requesting a private rendezvous, The Circus has no choice but to recall George immediately. Though necessary precautions are taken by both parties to ensure confidentiality, Vladimir never makes the appointment and is later found dead, having been shot in the face at close range with no detectable details, clues or culprits. The Circus promptly dismisses the incident as a lost cause, politely insinuating that with Vladimir having been out of the loop so long, nothing of consequence could have been extracted from the former Soviet defector.
But Smiley knows his hold friend well, just as he himself has always known a great deal more than he ever lets on. He knows Vladimir wouldn't ruffle any feathers unless something were of the utmost importance. With a little snooping around and a few visits to some old friends, George is soon able to retrieve the message Vladimir was trying to relay, information which swiftly gets the attention of the bullish heads at the Circus and promptly re-immerses George into the murky realm of undercover operations. It's a world where casual, often dubious acquaintances hold the key to revelations and critical intelligence maneuvers are required by a man in the know, a man like George Smiley, a man who, ironically, now feels far more at home than he ever could in retirement. Swiftly taking the evidence left him by Vladimir and applying it to his own well-networked system of people and information, George proceeds through an intricate sequence of interconnected events, slowly becoming wise to the slippery trail of the ever-elusive Soviet super spy "Karla", the most instrumental USSR agent in the history of the Cold War.
James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan have nothing, repeat nothing on George Smiley. Likewise for their respective creators (Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy), whose ultra-glamourized, ever-romanticized concept of authentic intelligence barely gets past fancy gadgets and expensive apparel and could never compare to the fastidious, sveltly polished work of Le Carré. Smiley's People almost makes you wish the Cold War were still on. The material, while initially complex and extensive, becomes so mentally intriguing that the reader can't help but be engrossed by the structure of the story. And it achieves this absent of any explosive action sequences. The passive mannerisms, contemplative nature and deftly executed procedures of George Smiley--a figure the very antithesis of flashy cool; he's an old, unappealing, slow-speaking reject--offer a well-developed, uniquely alluring character who may seem solitary but could never be deemed a romantic "lone wolf" type as he must rely on, who else, his "people" for everything. The irreplaceable Alec Guinness stars as Smiley in the BBC's 1982 miniseries which took home 4 Emmy's and was nominated for 6 others.
In addition to attending to Grayer's basic toddler needs--supervising his hygiene, ensuring he's attired properly and that absolutely NO sugar is in any of the food he eats--Nan must escort him to all manner of activities which fill up his day, many of which are expressly intended to help Grayer gain entry to one of the city's more prestigious preschool/pre-K institutions. Grayer is not allowed to watch TV, play video games or partake in any other form of popular entertainment and may only interact with potential friends on a pre-approved "play date". Any deviation from these rules--intentional, unintentional or otherwise--and Nan catches hell from Mrs. X, whose daily routine of aerobics, spa treatments and window shopping will have now been thoroughly ruined if one of the petty directives circumscribed on her little lists aren't adhered to. Needless to say, Nan is unavoidably torn between resentment and loathing for Mrs. X and sympathy toward the innocent and still uncorrupted Grayer, whose life, it seems can only become worse after Nan finds out that the ever-absent Mr. X is currently cheating on Mrs. X with another woman.
What begins like another lighthearted chick-lit caper, humorously following its heroine through the perils of New York City, quickly moves into more serious territory, becoming an earnest, solemn and even sinister diatribe on domestic roles and boundaries as the story progresses. While the X's are blatantly lampooned as being among the most thoroughly over-indulged, self-absorbed figures in society, there's the sense that it's not all in plain good fun. Almost immediately Nan begins to interpret the fragile ties binding the three members of the family together, threatening to break apart at any moment: Mr. X is a workaholic with absolutely no time (nor the willingness to make the time) for his son; Mrs. X makes a permanent livelihood of masking her imperfections and extreme vulnerability through the sterilizing of her surroundings; and Grayer is really a child without a childhood, cruelly deprived of not only any joy in life, but of the stability to make it happen. Nanny Diaries is by no means a perfect book; but it offers an entertaining read which is well worth it on multiple levels. (FIC MCLAUGHLIN)
Friday, May 7, 2010
It’s hard to say what this book is actually about. Two retired gentlemen, one an avid conservationist, decide to canoe down the Connecticut River together. Since they don’t want to camp out or haul along supplies, they publicize their trip as relying on “the kindness of strangers” to feed them and give them a place to sleep. One of the gentlemen, Ramsay Peard, a retired CEO who is NOT a conservationist, does the work of lining up names and numbers of people who agree to offer them hospitality along the way.
This is mostly a book for older folks, who have an interest in two men aged around sixty, committing themselves to a 400-mile journey when they really are not even used to canoeing. There are nice snapshots of different families they stay with, and details of the politics involved in creating land trusts for conservation development. I learned that dams can play havoc with a river, piling up sediment that increases plant growth, slowing water flow and hurting the fish life.
As other reviewers have noted, “Two Coots in a Canoe” is as much a study of the two men's relationship as it is of the problem of keeping rivers alive and beautiful. While the author, David Morine, has been friends with Ramsey for many years, Ramsey has episodes where he refuses to communicate. Cantankerous and beset with anxiety regarding old age, Ramsey displays the angst that can accompany retirement, especially for those for whom their work was their primary motivation in life. I found this a thoughtful book, as well as a good read.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Riley and Alice have summered at their family's Fire Island (NY) beach house for as long as they can remember. Now in their 20's--Riley, 24 and Alice, 21--they're spending what could be their last summer next door to Paul, a boy who's the same age as Riley but belongs to the social sphere of the wealthy elite. Through all the summers together and despite any social barriers, Paul's become not just a close friend but practically a brother to the two girls, sharing in lifes ups and downs and connecting on an especially companionable level. Though technically just friends, Alice has long been in love with Paul and Paul with Alice though neither have ever been able to own it. Riley, always the independent tomboy, headstrong and uninhibited in everything, recognizes the romance but has a difficult time reconciling herself to the fact that one of her best friends and only sister seem destined for each other, especially as she herself harbors her own unresolved feelings about Paul.
When Riley is diagnosed with a serious, possibly fatal heart condition, Alice is told but Paul is kept in the dark. Quickly, things between the friends become complicated as Alice struggles to balance her love for Paul with loyalty to her older sister while Riley must face her own mortality and bear a falsehood which goes against her honest, genuine and forthright nature. Paul does his best to sift through the awkwardness of things while trying to come to terms with his own conscience and convictions. As the knowledge and secret of Riley's illness takes hold, a rift steadily arises between the two sisters, and ultimately Paul, as the trio is forced to confront a pivotal period in their young lives and the bond between them which has sustained their friendship for so long.
Brashares is intuitive and understanding when it comes to characteristics which drive relationships, but she doesn't quite hit the mark on this one. With a talent for establishing an intriguing premise and introspective characters, the author seems to be at a loss to resolve any of the interconnected conflicts and things become stagnant amid too much self-evaluation and dreamy meanderings. Memories of better times are constantly rehashed in the minds and hearts of all three protagonists; a perhaps deliberate, but altogether confusing device detracting too much from the present tense. As the plot evolves, the three lives are well-fleshed out but any personal revelations fail to grow the story or break through the cycle of sad and troublesome quandaries constantly lingering in the context.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Five Spice St. is an ordinary street in an ordinary East Asian city where routine marks the daily lives of the inhabitants. But everyone's got a story, one which the neighborhood gossip matron “Madame X” is only too obliged to fill everyone else in on.
The Concubine’s Daughter: A Novel / by Pai Kit FaiAfter rebelling against her father when he tries to have her feet bound, 8-year-old Li-Xia is sold to a traveling silk merchant as slave labor. Her luck changes somewhat when she’s rescued by the captain of a French trading who subsequently falls in love with her and teaches her to read and write.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter: A Novel / by Eugenia Kim
In the early twentieth century a daughter is born to Ha, a noted Korean calligrapher and scribe, and his wife. Najin, as the child's called, grows up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and eventually goes to college and becomes a teacher all the while observing as her homeland and its ancient culture are vanquished by the imperial enemy as World War II nears.
Girl In Translation / by Jean Kwok
After immigrating to Brooklyn from Hong Kong, Ah-Kim Chang (Kim) and her mother work long hours in a textile factory, after which Kim returns home to study. And study she does--hard. When she’s admitted to an elite private school, Kim experiences not only the elevated academic standards, but the added pressures of dealing with an unforgiving social hierarchy.
The Surrendered / by Chang-Rae Lee
The lives of a combat refugee, an American soldier and an orphanage minister’s wife all intertwine in this engrossing tale covering the tragedy of war balanced against the legacy and survival of love. In the 1950's with the Korean War waging, a small girl is carried to a safehouse by a benevolent US marine who saves not only her life but, inadvertently, the future of an entire generation.
The Favorites / by Mary Yukari Waters
Fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford is a “half”—half American (caucasian), half Japanese—meaning her mother’s Japanese family doesn’t really accept her when the pair relocate overseas to Kyoto. But with time, and as she begins to learn more about her family’s tragic history and lineage, Sarah becomes aware of the broader generational world of which she is a product.
Everything Asian: A Novel / by Sung J. Woo
It’s been five years since 12-year-old Dae Joon has seen his father who left for America with the intention of making a home before sending for his family—Dae Joon, his mother and older brother. Upon arrival, Dae Joon changes his name to “David” and begins the process of acclimating himself to American culture, growing and learning life lessons as well as commenting on his family and new community in New Jersey.