Friday, May 28, 2010

From Atoms To Infinity: 88 Great Ideas In Science / by Mary and John Gribbin

"Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of ideas." --John Dewey (1859-1952)
So just what is infinity, really? At what speed exactly do nerve impulses in your brain move? What's on the other side of a black hole? What is the strongest (per pound) animal on the planet? These questions and more are answered in this inquisitive and thought provoking book on all things science, which in addition to answering some of the most commonly asked questions (like is the weather in New York City really affected by a butterfly flapping its wings thousands of miles away in Indonesia?), helps the casual reader understand the basic elements which make up our daily lives and the world we live in. And in simple enough terms so that yes, anyone, can understand it.
Authors Mary and John Gribbin, two of the most world-renowned science authors, have developed a great little tool for answering some of the most commonly asked questions about science. In brief, concise sections, usually one page excerpts, From Atoms to Infinity deftly explains the biggest (and smallest) ideas which comprise life, from the most miniscule quark of an atom to the physics behind the 27 km particle accelerator in Switzerland known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which can produce energy capacities equivalent to full scale aircraft carriers. The book is an informative read, presenting the realm of science, in all its expansive proportions and dimensions, with easily consumable explanations of its fascinating dynamics.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hummingbirds / by Joshua Gaylord

To the casual eye, the Carmine-Casey Academy might resemble something closer to a party with a dress-code rather than a prep school. Both students and teachers alike tend to treat education as a secondary discipline, employing far more time and energy toward the gossipy social side of things. One such teacher is Leo Binhammer who, when he's not entertaining thoughts about his pupils and how best to apply his own personal charms, is recuperating from an affair his wife had with a fellow teacher, Ted Hughes. Things are better now, after the awkwardness, with Ted and Leo actually forming an unusual camaraderie during the whole thing (matrimony isn't a big deal at Carmine-Casey where half the faculty is divorced and the other half is perpetually occupied in extramarital trysts, affairs, flirtations, etc.). And so, as the new term begins, things are relatively back to normal for Leo as he basks in the glamour of being the only male in the English department, and one of only a handful of male teachers at the school.
Meanwhile, student queen-bee Dixie Doyle and her peers lounge outside the school, Lolita-like in their plaid skirts and suggestive accessories, shamelessly attempting to attract the attention of male teachers like Binhammer and Ted Hughes, who just can't help being that irresistably appealing. But Binhammer, at least, has his eye elsewhere. Liz Warren, one of the few consummate students, and a budding playwright, catches the eye of the literature teacher who subtly tries putting the moves on her before his chummy rival, Ted, can do the same. Before long, things get complicated as the love quadrangle involving the demure Liz, sultry Dixie, Mr. Binhammer and Ted Hughes produces inevitable confusion, competitition and dangerous relationships.
On one hand this book is like a prime-time soap opera, it's scandalous content never without a dull moment. On the other, it's kind of sick. Gaylord is a bit blasé about everything, describing intimate details--most of which concern the seedy personal desires of teachers for their students and vice-versa--with phlegmatic nonchalance, his mood and atmosphere lacking any real seriousness or threatening elements. At times, there's a sense that the story takes place in some bizarre, inconsequential parallel universe where the worst that could happen would never really happen. Bad things, when they do happen, just aren't felt as sincerely, if they even register at all. The multi-perspective style entertains though, and the book's salaciousness will satisfy more than a few readers.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Writers behaving badly

Sure, it's trashy, but how can you help but get a kick out of literary giants acting like kids on the playground? The Daily Beast published a slideshow history of notable author feuds of this and the last two centuries. Unsurprisingly, Norman Mailer appears in a few. Click here: Literary Feuds

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Monday, May 24, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest / by Ken Kesey

Among the major contributors to the American counterculture movement of the 1960's was author Ken Kesey. His relationships with former beatniks Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, along with public figures like the controversial Dr. Timothy Leary, and his passion for music by The Grateful Dead, helped fuse the beat generation to the hippie movement and initiate drug experimentation. The financial freedom afforded by One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) provided him with the opportunity to accommodate large, lavish parties--labeled "Acid Tests"--at his private residence where, in addition to progressive rock music, strobe lights and fluorescent paint, LSD was liberally provided and its use highly encouraged.
"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

B Is For Beer / by Tom Robbins

It all started the day 5-year-old Gracie Perkel asked, "Daddy, can I please taste your beer?". When her father (watching his favorite team lose yet another game) abruptly dismisses her request, Gracie is introduced to beer by her Uncle Moe, a man secretly labeled as the family "nut job" by her parents, but whom Gracie has always found wonderfully entertaining. Beer, Moe elaborates, combines hops, yeast, grain and water to produce an "elixir so gassy with blue-collar cheer, so regal with glints of gold, so titillating with potential mischief . . . that it seizes the soul and thrusts it toward that ethereal plateau where all human whimsies float and merge.". Dazzled by her uncle's uniquely charming description and seemingly endless knowledge on the subject of his most favorite beverage, Gracie learns all she can from him, even boldly sharing her knowledge the next day in Sunday school (to the shock and chagrin of the teacher). Soon afterwards, Gracie decides to find out for herself the secret behind the drink her uncle fondly refers to as "hair of the dog", ultimately discovering a new and different world she never could've expected.
Robbins, noted humorist and author of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, has crafted a clever little novel colorfully dubbed "a children's book for grown-ups" and "a grown-up book for children". Like the drink it lovingly characterizes, the book is brewed with just the right combination of childlike wonderment and adult satiric humor. The physical book is even bound in an appropriately "aged" package--the thick covering featuring a cartoonish beer mug resembling something from a grade schooler's reading choice while the interior is typeset exactly as books intended for that level generally are. The writing itself will remind readers of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, preserving the innocence of a child's world within a contemporary, somewhat serious atmosphere as it fancifully illuminates a particular aspect of the exclusive adult-world from a "minor's" point-of-view.

Stieg Larsson, illuminated

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

Little Children / by Tom Perrotta

A native of the Northeast, Tom Perrotta has been a writer since his days editing his school's newspaper, a period of his life he would later chronicle in his novel Election. After graduating from Yale where he took classes from O. Henry award winner Tobias Wolff, Perrotta began writing fiction, tagging his work with the self-described label of "plain-language American tradition"* similar to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Raymond Chandler. Little Children observes the interconnected lives of several emotionally disturbed thirty somethings living in suburban Boston.
"I am a painfully ordinary person." (p. 18)
The local playground is the setting for quite a lot of drama during a brief period in one suburban Boston neighborhood. Sarah is 30, married and a mother when it hits her one day while pushing her daughter Lucy on the swing that she's become like every other woman at the playground--her friends!?!?--who caddily poke and prod about every little thing, pathetically over- obsessed with their trivial lives, or so it seems. So depressed is she by this revelation that she takes up a casual dare promoted by one of her counterparts to flirt with the handsome dad across the way. The lark becomes more than Sarah bargained for as she and the stranger, Todd, another unhappy spouse, enter into an affair, even accommodating their liasons around periods when their kids can play together. Soon discovering the fling is Kathy, Todd's exceptionally beautiful and domineering wife who reveals, in twisted fashion, that she's more insulted than angry over Todd's infidelity, viewing Sarah as a woman who's clearly "beneath her" in every respect.
Meanwhile in the same neighborhood not too far away, 33-year-old Larry Moon is a former police officer whose life has been plagued with nothing but anguish and guilt after he mistakenly shot and killed a black teenager. To outlet his distress and to give his life a sense of purpose, Larry has become obsessed to the point of rage over the fact that Ronald McGorvey, a sex offender, is allowed to live in his neighborhood. Larry's continued harassment leads to an encounter with Ronald's mother, May, who ends up dead after suffering a fatal stroke. Shortly afterwards, Sarah, intending to tell husband Richard she's leaving him for Todd, discovers that Richard's already left her for another woman, a pornographic actress. Still intending to elope with Todd, Sarah embarks en route to their rendezvous point--the playground--only to find, instead of Todd, a lurking Ronald being followed by Larry.
Little Children reads much like a Robert Altman film plays--think Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, etc.--with multiple, intertwined storylines played out over a relatively short period (Short Cuts was actually based on a collection of Raymond Chandler short stories). Perrotta's writing is a little less impartial than Altman's reserved, non-judgmental demeanor, but his characters can't help but resonate with the contemporary reader. Each indivdual is imbued with a sense of disillusionment, even with lives relatively free of problems and, in many respects, rather flourishing and prosperous. The central characters, Sarah and Todd, seem the most gutted by life's natural courses and transitions, each painfully realizing the lives they've had to "settle for", concluding that their weaknesses define them and their situations far better than any more positive personal attributes ever could. This novel, published in 2004, was ultimately made into a feature film starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson. It garnered 3 Academy Award nominations including Winslet, as Sarah, for best actress.
*Shanahan, Mark. "Adaptation: Tom Perrotta is growing accustomed to seeing his books on the big screen", The Boston Globe, 2006.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Penal Colony / by Richard Herley

Only the most violent criminals are brought to the island penal colony of Sert, an alternative incarceration unit intended to help alleviate the overcrowded prison system. Though gunships patrol the waters around the perimeter, there are no wardens, no guards and no rules on the island itself. Martial law is the only authority with "inmates" monitored remotely through specialized satellite detection devices. All prisoners brought to the island are sentenced to life without parole, just like Anthony Routledge whose been convicted of raping and murdering a woman in cold blood. Routledge is literally dropped (from a helicopter) onto the island where, with absolutely no warning, he's introduced to the sheer ferocity of his situation. Reduced to a virile state of savagery by their conditions, bloodthirsty island inhabitants prey on him relentlessly, swiftly hunting down Routledge who only escapes their vicious attacks after killing three pursuers in self-defense.
Not all prisoners on the island are that depraved though. A sect known as The Community, comprised of individuals not totally given over to madness or blood lust, have set themselves apart from the primeval part of the island, effectively quarantined within a walled off portion separate from their barbarian counterparts whom they vigilantly ensure never gain access. Routledge, having survived the assault on his life, is permitted to become a part of The Community, finding it to be a thriving work camp where men freely cultivate their own natural habitat, living off the land, growing their own food and domesticating wild animals. Though things seem peaceable enough with some men even claiming to have found a permanent home, there's some subversive maneuvers afoot. In top secret fashion, an escape plan has been slowly fostered by the camp elders who, deeming Routledge a worthy man for the job, have drafted him as a candidate to help pull it off.
Surprisingly few books have approached the idea of prison dynamics with the same ingenuity as Herley in this admirably creative novel which fuses an exciting premise with sophisticated writing and honest characters. It's a sort of Lord of the Flies meets Robinson Crusoe meets Count of Monte Cristo meets Papillon (and a host of others); and yet it carries off its own identity perfectly, promoting a well-cooked idea combined with grounded thematic concepts in a story which bristles with allegory and symbolism. Man vs. nature, instinct vs. reason, captivity vs. freedom, crime & punishment, oppression & redemption, etc. are all played out in the context. The book is worthy entertainment simply as a adventure/survival tale though and should disappoint absolutely no one.

'Lost' reading list: the show's creators discuss literary influences, from Stephen King to Flannery O'Connor

'Lost' reading list: the show's creators discuss literary influences, from Stephen King to Flannery O'Connor

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Presidential reading trivia

I love random tidbits like this: the Huffington Post just published a slideshow of 12 different U.S. presidents' favorite books. Don't worry, partisans, both Democrats and Republicans are included :) Click here for the link.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Attention Science Fiction Fans

The Nebula Awards were just announced for material published in 2009. Click here for a link to a list of the award winners. The whole list of nominees is worth taking a look at -- click here for the full list. I'm thrilled that Kage Baker's novella The women of Nell Gywnne's won for best novella, but so sad that she's not around to continue that series. There's so much good sci-fi and fantasy being published right now!!

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

Common notions of early medieval life evoke images of people wearing robes and tights, daily toiling in the mud-caked fields, laboring behind horse-drawn carts, walking through villages and towns where buildings are constructed entirely of wood and thatched roofing. Or one might think of knights on horseback, kings and castles, ladies in waiting and customary ceremonies depicted in any number of mediums. In fact, though many of these allusions maintain some level of accuracy, daily life in England and most other parts of western Europe was far from the conventionally accepted model previously described. Though life was no picnic with sparsely-insulated housing, unpleasant hygiene, high mortality rates and the constant threat of invasion, "life was not all that bad" say authors Lacey and Danziger who base much of their information on one of the few documented transcripts of the period--the Julius Work Calendar circa the year 1000, as close a thing the first millenium Britons had to an almanac.
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

"It was like a message from God: 'Honesty doesn't pay, Sucker!'"
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

Smiley's People / by John Le Carré

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.

The Nanny Diaries: A Novel / by Emma McLaughlin

Nan is a recent college graduate turned part-time graduate student at NYU in need of a steady job to pay tuition along with the rent on her tiny but expensive Manhattan studio apartment. Thinking that a gig as a nanny could be right up her alley--she is majoring in early childhood development--Nan replies to a quirky newspaper ad requesting a young woman to be an au paire for a four-year-old child in a ritzy part of uptown, little knowing what she's getting herself into. The family, referred to as the X's--Mr. & Mrs. X and son Grayer X--epitomize wealthy upper-class Manhattan society and, wholly without warning, Nan is thrust into the world of insane duties and demands disproportionately irrelevant to her position. Soon she learns just how domineering, overbearing and downright despotic the parents of a priveleged Park Avenue toddler can be.

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

Two Coots in a Canoe by David E. Morine

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

The Last Summer (Of You & Me) / by Ann Brashares

Best known for her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants novels, Ann Brashares has become a staple of Young Adult fiction. Her first contemporary adult novel, published in 2007, explores the relationship between two sisters and a long-time male friend during one summer at a Long Island beach community, and the subsequent times thereafter.
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

New Asian & Asian-American Fiction

Five Spice Street / by Can Xue; Trans. by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
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.