Thursday, July 29, 2010

Saving Face: How To Lie, Fake, and Maneuver Your Way Out Of Life's Most Awkward Situations / by Andy Robin and Gregg Kavet

"The tactics in this book work for anyone, from the brain damaged simpleton to the self-indulgent genius." (p. 4). Thus begins Andy Robin's little book on ordinary, everyday quandaries that tend to befuddle even the most suave individuals. Robin, a former writer on Seinfeld, discusses dozens of worst-case scenarios, unintentional mix-ups and frequent faux pas which land us all in life's embarassing episodes. Learn what to do when you arrive at a party without a gift, how to make your friends' negative qualities seem completely acceptable, and what to say to relatives you just don't want to see. There's even a "toolbox" section which lists dozens of tactics and contingency plans for what to do about breaking up with that not-so-special-anymore someone you just don't have the guts to tell they're no longer liked.

Robin and his TV writing partner Kavet know all the convenient ways to avoid life's little social disasters. Their anecdotal pieces are surprisingly practical, though never without some tongue-in-cheek good humour. And their advice is doable, even if it's not always so honorable. So whether it's forgetting the name of someone who seems to know you and your lifestory, or even if it's just finessing your way through those uncomfortable situations at family get togethers, Saving Face has you covered. It can prepare you to blase their way through potential public humiliations, refocus the attention on someone else when the heat is on or avoid altogether those things you just don't feel like doing. (818.607 ROBIN)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Youth In Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp / by C. Douglas Payne

Nick Twisp is quite a character. At 14, he's one of the few intellectuals among his small circle of vapid family and friends living in Oakland ("a large torpid city across the bay from San Francisco"). Thoroughly misunderstood by his mother, always more wrapped up in her steady stream of cretin boyfriends; neglected by his father, who frequently shuns Nick's allowance (a.k.a. child support payments) in favor of his own life in the fast lane; and ignored by most everyone else, Nick turns to his diary for solace. Recording his daily meanderings in vivid detail, he opens up about his cultural observations, philosophical convictions, problems with authority, acne dilemma, impression of public institutions and waining libido status. It's an oppressive, though not uncommon adolescent life.
It is, at least, until Nick meets Sheeni Saunders, his dream girl and soulmate while on vacation with his mom and her current trucker boyfriend Jerry ("who's ultimate ambition is to go on permanent state disability"). After some romantic and intellectual sparring, Nick and Sheeni fall passionately in love. Ultimately they plan to live in Paris where they foresee a life spent in cafés along the Seine, conversing with other prominent existential philosophers of the day and looking down their noses at the simpletons of the world. It's a dream Nick is willing to do anything to see happen. Only now he'll have to navigate he and Sheeni's budding romance around their bumbling adult counterparts who, though woefully ill-equipped for their tasks as parents, are still in charge. Nothing short of an all out revolution, Nick feels, is called for.
Always watch the movie before you read the book. Or else one without the other. Payne's 1993 Youth In Revolt is that type of novel, one so infused with urbanity, dry wit, campy style and black humor, you just can't recreate the same appeal through alternate mediums. It's a book altogether marked by a distinctly rhythmic flair. Nick's ramblings play out in an almost poetical way, marked by humor and alternating nervous impulses. Doubtless an intentional nuance of the author's was a satirical style mirroring eclectic new wave French films like Godard's Breathless or Truffaut's Day for Night, Payne careful to leave in just enough aesthetic sensibility so the story's neither too vague nor overblown yet always fresh and spontaneous. (FIC PAYNE)

Love and longing at the library

NPR recently posted a blog entry with reviews of new literary love stories. Click here to take a look at their recommendations.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War / by Karl Marlantes

Not unlike Charlie Sheen's character Chris Taylor in the movie Platoon, Karl Marlantes was a middle-class college graduate when he joined the marines to fight in Vietnam in 1968. The Rhodes Scholar with a degree from Yale began his tour as a Second Lieutenant, enduring some of the fiercest combat action of the entire war while serving as a Platoon Commander. His tenure prompted him to record his experiences in book form, intending the literary effort first as a response to the vigilant anti-war protests he encountered upon his return home. Eventually he re-evaluated his vision towards the formation of a novel. After literally hundreds of rewrites, retouches and rejection letters, Marlantes' Matterhorn, a labor of love over 35 years in the making, is here, inculminating the Vietnam War in all of its horror, tragedy, controversy and legacy.
In 1969, the Matterhorn is a strategic hilltop in South Vietnam not far from the Demilitarized Zone and only 3 clicks from the border with Laos. It's where some of the most relentless, most ferocious combat of the Vietnam War is being waged, in part by the Marine Corps Company Bravo of the 5th Marine Division led by Platoon Commander 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas. Mellas is 21 and green, having just arrived in country and put in charge of the Bravo One platoon full of scared, ambivalent and often unpredictable grunts, most of whom are still teenagers. In brutal fashion under seemingly mad orders from a dithering, indolent Battalian Commander, the troops of Bravo Company have been ordered to take and hold the Matterhorn against a barrage of counterattacks implemented by the very determined, very unyielding and uniquely skilled North Vietnamese forces.
Mellas doesn't remain a novice long. No one does in this environment. He and his corp of marines--troops of every race, from all different backgrounds--succeed in taking the hill only to abandon their position when further, likewise inane directives order them elsewhere. All the while, they contend against the might and muck of the jungle where leeches suck them dry, wild animals attack and eat them, their provisions deteriorate, their feet rot and their bodies starve. It is a putrid, ugly and dirty war--literally and figuratively. Dishonor and dissension are commonplace in the ranks where fear, bickering, infighting, self-preservation and emotional paralysis get the better of the men. After all, their circumstances are largely pre-determined, orchestrated above their heads through decisions out of their control.
Few novels recreate the disaster that was the Vietnam War like Marlantes in this vivid portrait entailing absolutely everything. From the sheer confusion and chaos of combat to the reckless tactics exercised down the chain of command, the book manages both a macro and micro viewpoint of the conflict which accomplished so little at the expense of so much. Literature on Vietnam--fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, etc.--has long weighed down the shelves and no one will question the historical validity, or even the iconoclastic appeal, of the war. Its cultural impact as well as social and political reverberations are well-known just as its personal repercussions are still felt. Yet there are few truly good novels on it, and even fewer great ones. Matterhorn fills that void. It really is a great war novel perhaps destined to become a classic, but a book which won't be soon forgotten never the less. (FIC MARLANTES)

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl / by Timothy Egan

How could a natural disaster be man-made? Yet the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930's was just that. For many in the great plains states, most notably Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the Dust Bowl was not just a difficulty, like the financial woes others faced because of the country's economic depression. It was a catastrophe of epic scale, akin to some sort of biblical plague, begetting wide-scale damage, destruction and death in over 100 million acres, much of it centered in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Many of the mostly farmers and their families, lots of them recent immigrants, simply up and left in the wake of the "Black Blizzard" even with nowhere to go. More than a few, like the Joads of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, traveled west to California where life was little better (and in more than a few cases, worse), though at least the air was breathable.
But for those who stayed behind, life was not unlike hell on earth. The 'earth' itself quite literally turned against the farmers who were more or less deceived into cultivating the less-accommodating soil of the region. Seduced originally into buying land not accustomed to growing greener, more arable crops, the settlers had to learn the truth the hard way. Following decades of errant farming, defective crop rotations and years of famine and drought, the ruined topsoil caught up in the wind until a mass of flurrying dust, like mountains, blurred everything in its wake, terminating all organic life and causing epic amounts of ecological and agricultural damage.
Author Egan does a good job of illuminating this not necessarily neglected, but perhaps less-scrutinized niche of American history. When most people think of the Dust Bowl, they think of drought, of windstorms and of families traveling westward wearing worn, haggard clothes and looking downcast in despair. But few even consider the plight of those who stayed, a forgotten collection of doomed souls--entire families and communities--left without any protection, sustenance or adequate relief. Thrust into starvation or made deathly ill by the dust itself, through "dust pneumonia", the region and the people consumed by the disaster would never be the same. (978.032 EGAN)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ghost Story / by Peter Straub

In the small town of Milburn, four old men share a tradition of telling ghost stories to pass the time on the long, cold winter nights. The four--Dr. John Jaffrey, Lewis Benedikt, Sears James and Ricky Hawthorne--have been friends all their lives, the quartet known as The Chowder Society, all well-recognized as upstanding citizens of their community. Until recently, the foursome had a fifth member named Ed Wanderley who passed away a year previous under some rather strange conditions. Ed had been found dead in an upstairs bedroom of Dr. Jaffrey's home during a party, his grey hair completely white and his face frozen in a look of shocked horror, as if he'd been frightened to death.
The the year succeeding their friend's death has not been pleasant for the remaining Chowders who've all suffered horrible nightmares and other unpleasant occurrences. When Jaffrey dies only days after the one-year anniversary of Ed's death of an 'apparent suicide', thought to have jumped off a bridge, terror really strikes the hearts of Lewis, Sears and Ricky who decide to take action against whomever or whatever is seemingly out to get them. Wanting to keep things secret, they summon the nephew of their late friend Ed, Donald Wanderley, an expert on the occult and other paranormal phenomenon, to investigate what's plaguing them and hopefully put an end to the growing presence of terror in their lives.
Straub's Ghost Story, originally published in 1979, is one of the most thrilling--and chilling--horror novels of the twentieth century. Combining elements of the paranormal and occult with long dead and buried secrets, it is a book rich in both character detail and terror-driven suspense. The real strength of the story lies in the bond between the friends, the close-knit group confronted by a mutually regrettable past and a present evil coming back to haunt them. The plot, though complex at times, does include all of the key devices necessary for a classic ghost/horror tale: subtle warning signs, death, eerie links to the afterlife and the 'principle of evil' embodied within demonic forms and/or otherworldly beings. It's a great book to get into during say, a really rainy weekend. (FIC STRAUB)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Life and Times of Homer Sincere: Whose Amazing Adventures Are Documented By His True and Trusted Friend Rigby Canfield / by Nathaniel Lande

Rigby Canfield and Homer Sincere are best friends in 1930's New Orleans when their story begins, both living in the French Quarter despite belonging to polar opposite social classes--Rigby's family is rich, Homer is more or less a destitute orphan. Meeting over a game of marbles one day, the two instantly hit it off, united by their love of the Cinema with the local Rialto Theatre, showcasing their ultimate hero Billy Sunshine, becoming their weekly ritual. Not satisfied just to two watch movies, Rigby and Homer begin filming their own with an long-saved-up-for 8mm camera, recording the goings-on of their colorful neighborhood which usually includes its daily amusements, sideshows, frequent parades and one very savvy, rhyming vegetable cart owner named Waldo--always their leading man.
Things fast-forward to years later when both Rigby and Homer, still best friends, are in New York City working as journalists where each cultivate their creative vision through jobs with the Time-Life news group. Together and separately they're afforded the opportunity to witness some of the period's most high-profile events in some of the world's most high profile places. It is in New York also where both fall in love with the same woman, Daisy, a beautiful, intelligent modern working woman who provides the crucible for which the pair's friendship must pass. Their bond survives though, just as it did in the early years, the two remaining united through their one fervent passion: movies. Having never forgotten their ultimate dream, the pair soon resettle in California where they confront the monster that is the world of Hollywood show business.
'Homer Sincere' is about many things: friendship, humanity, following your dreams, the mid-twentieth century as perceived through popular events and entertainment, Americana and the cultural influence of Hollywood on a generation, etc. Lande takes tidbits from his own background as a reporter for Time magazine as well as his tenure as a film critic, and weaves together a story as unforgettable as any of the more recent coming-of-age tales, chronicling the eventful, pivotal years of the last century in all its abundance and progress through two very real, very determined and very enduring individuals. (FIC LANDE)

Monster Blood Tattoo: Book One: The Foundling / by David M. Cornish

Rossamünd Bookchild already has it tough being a boy with a girl's name. The fact that he's one of the oldest boys at the orphanage makes it all the worse. It isn't long though before things change when a local seagoing outfit hires up the fourteen-year-old as a midshipmen, embarking him on the voyage which will begin what Rossamünd expects (from all the stories he's read and heard) to be a very adventurous life. The world Rossamünd enters for the first time, the world of Half-Continent, is indeed very new and exciting, but also very treacherous. Humans are not the only wayfarers upon the high seas. The prowling, shadowy figures of hideous, unearthly beasts cohabit the world, living on land and sea, mercilessly preying upon mankind. Men like Rossamünd's shipmate Poundinch, possessing an image of the creature tattoed on his arm (men bearing the tattoo have slain one of the monsters), aim to kill the beasts or be killed themselves. Something Rossamünd learns, in the coming months, is no easy feat.
Australia native Cornish apparently spent over 14 years perfecting his fantastical world of Half-Continent, an imaginary world so detailed and precise that a lengthy appendix with glossary is tacked on to this volume, the first of a trilogy, for the purpose of enlightening the reader as to all of the series' intricate details and inventive vocabulary. But it doesn't take a fantasy buff or even an older reader to enjoy the author's magical tale and vivid descriptions set in a time and place mirroring something from 18th century Georgian English society with ships and maritime aspects of the era well-entailed. The book, truly a labor of love, is well worth it as a exceptionally unique and original story. Also look for Cornish's 2nd volume, Lamplighter, which is already available on the shelves and the third, Factotum, due out soon. (SF CORNISH)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

This is Piper Kerman’s account of her time spent at a women’s prison in Connecticut, having been involved in drug trafficking. She is not sentenced until 10 years after her conviction, since the government was trying to get the head of the smuggling organization extradited from England, and wanted her to testify against him, only not as a prisoner. Kerman pled guilty to money laundering (having flown money in her suitcase to Europe), which carries a minimum sentence of two and a half years. With a great lawyer and lots of friends and family to write glowing testimonies for her, she receives a 15 month sentence, and ends up serving only 13 months.

There is not a lot of insight into her character and why she allowed herself to engage in crime. Kerman is faithful in detailing how she got special treatment over and over again for being a white, blue-eyed and attractive blond woman, with a degree from a prestigious women’s college – which is not your average inmate. It makes it difficult to understand how she got sucked into supplying heroin to addicts. The rationale seems to be more about her free and adventurous lifestyle than about the money. Kerman had an “open” orientation and had more female lovers than male, during college and afterwards. One of these females is instrumental in flying her across the world to join her in Bali, from which point Kerman becomes more and more enmeshed in the trafficking life, until she is pressured to take part in the actual smuggling.

Some of the controversy regarding the strong lesbian counterculture which exists in our top women’s colleges may come to mind when reading this book. One wonders if Nora, the woman who pulled Kerman into the trade, would have been as successful in enticing Kerman if she had been a man. Be that as it may, the book has value for its day-to-day portrayal of the minimum security prison. Kerman has long since distanced herself from her lesbian past, has a fiancé waiting for her, and tries to walk a straight line while doing her time.

What is most revealing is how, as Kerman points out mid-way through the book, that in any prison, it’s the prisoners who “run” the prison. Even dealing with the bondage they live under, the prisoners’ personalities and their particular strengths and weaknesses all feed into the system, giving everyone a part to play. Kerman says that our country has more convicts than any other, and the system has to change, especially regarding non-violent crime. After reading this book, I think most would have to agree with her.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Paris, Texas (1984) DVD / a film by Wim Wenders; starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Rockwell, Nastassjia Kinski, Auroré Clement & Hunter Carson

Somewhere in the American Southwest, a man walks alone across the parched desert not knowing where he's from, where he's going or even his own name. Dissheveled and weatherbeaten, he continues on, trance-like in one direction across the sun-baked terrain finally stopping at an isolated outpost where, in a small general store, he passes out. Upon waking, the attending doctor can get neither word nor reaction from his severely malnourished but docile patient and, finding only a worn piece of paper with some contact info, calls the number which turns out to be the brother of the mute, who's finally identified as Travis Henderson.
Brother Walt Henderson arrives to meet Travis whom he hasn't seen for four years and, following an awkward period of greeting and reaquaintance with Walt basically having to talk Travis out of his suspended catatonic state, the pair travel back to Walt's Southern California home. Awaiting them are Walt's wife Anne and 7-year-old Hunter, Travis' biological son who's lived with his aunt and uncle ever since the dissolution of Travis' marriage, his mysterious disappearance and subsequent four-year stint spent wandering alone. Though wary and tentative of his father initially, young Hunter quickly warms to Travis who swiftly regains his bearings with the help of some old home movies and photo albums. After learning of the whereabouts of his (Travis') former wife Jane--also Hunter's mother, also estranged of late--the newly reunited father and son pair embark on a their own journey, one intended to reconnect with the third member of their formerly dissolved family unit living somewhere in Houston.
Paris, Texas isn't actually about the real-life town in the northeast corner of the state. Yet the title's paradoxical ring is well-understood through the movie's context. It's a film which is acutely conscious of reality, exploring emotions and relationships, families and obligations; observing the price of passion, the burden of existence and the saving grace of love through motifs of travel, architecture and geography. As much can be said about the movie apart from the spot-on acting, which is impeccable really in its simplistic approach. The visual scenes are rich in symbolic imagery and American iconography as perceived by an outsider; it's a French/German co-production headed by German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) who does some of his best work here. Images show characters surrounded by vast, impersonal forms of modern skyscrapers and looming natural landforms, the cities perceivably as empty and dispassionate as the desert. Wenders' use of over 25 individual filming locations is one truly remarkable, if unorthodox, feat. All scenes were shot chronologically beginning in Texas' Big Bend country, running through Arizona and New Mexico and finally to the San Fernando Valley before returning to Houston for the final act. The effort and expense was, of course, well worth it: Paris, Texas won the Palme d'Or prize awarded at Cannes that year and is a timeless example of the power of independent cinema. (DVD PARIS)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ordinary People / by Judith Guest

Judith Guest grew up as an aspiring writer throughout high school and college, majoring in English and Psychology at the University of Michigan. Her first and still best-regarded book Ordinary People originally began as a short story, eventually growing longer as Guest continued to explore the characters in greater depth. After winning the Kafka Prize for best first novel in 1976, the book was adapted for the big screen by director Robert Redford (his directorial debut) and would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Redford and then teenager Timothy Hutton would also win Oscars for Best Director and Best Actor respectively.
."They are people of good taste. They do not discuss a problem in the presence of the problem. And, besides, there is no problem. There is just Phase Two. Recovery. A moving forward." (p. 4)
Conrad Jarrett is 17 and a student at Lake Forest (IL) High where in addition to academics, he participates on the swim team and sings in the choir. He's a seemingly well-adjusted youth, having been brought up in a priveleged home with two loving parents, an established group of friends, college on the horizon and even a few flirtatious love interests. But Conrad is anything but alright. The same goes for his parents, Calvin and Beth Jarrett, who not only have no idea how to deal with Conrad, but are visibly becoming unhinged themselves in the wake of two recent family tragedies--the accidental death of the Jarrett's older son "Buck" and Conrad's own attempted suicide just under a year ago.
Things are in a bad way for the Jarrett household which is shaky at best, the trio weighed down by emotional tension, more or less isolated from each other since Conrad's return from the hospital some months ago and at a loss to forge any continuity or mutual intimacy. Mom Beth scampers about, busybodying herself with a myriad of social functions, trying to suppress her still cavernous grief over Buck's death, all the while behaving in a passively-aggressive, even dismissive manner towards Conrad, the less-favored son. And while Calvin is openly warm and affectionate toward all, his own naieve efforts to change things usually end in failure. Though his one notion, getting Conrad to see a psychiatrist, does finally garner some feedback and, if not family togetherness, then at least some insight into what's actually going on.
Several things set Ordinary People at a level above the montage of suburban soap operas, semifactual docudramas or depressing after school specials. There's the integrity of the story, its matter-of-fact but not stereotyped people and situations, and its development of the characters. Circumstances don't change a whole lot between the time the novel begins sometime in autumn and when it concludes around late winter: Conrad's still depressed, Beth's still decimated with grief and Calvin's still rankled at the inertness of his life. The affluence of the Jarrett's surroundings is clearly apparent but never promoted as a reason for each character's turmoil. Pain, problems and grief originate within each individual and flow outwards; and though all three protagonists are provided with the opportunity to examine themselves, pinpoint the source of distress and push forward towards a resolution, not all are up to the task. (FIC GUEST)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Bad Kitty Lounge: A Mystery / by Michael Wiley

Chicago PI Joe Kozmarski knows he's in for it when Greg Samuelson, a man with a long history of troubling issues and knack for misbehaving, hires Joe to help keep tabs on his wife Amy and her lover Eric Stone. But Samuelson isn't one for waiting patiently and promptly torches the car belonging to Stone while continuing to personally harass the couple who in turn try to hire Kozmarski as their own lookout. A sinister web of lies and deceit starts unfolding as further mayhem, including the dead body of a nun who worked with Samuelson, heats up Kozmarski's world leading the former police detective to uncover some incriminating secrets about his client's involvement in the arson case (now cold) of a long-since forgotten nightclub--The Bad Kitty Lounge. In the 1960's the lounge was a hip hangout for counterculture types who used the establishment as a prominent drug den before a fatal fire destroyed it.
As Joe begins uncovering some startling evidence linking his clients with the place, more dead bodies start turning up as the case builds in treachery and dramatics. Wiley, author of the award-winning The Last Striptease, also featuring Kozmarski, hits the same exciting notes in this follow-up trailing his protagonist through Chicagoland and a maze of gritty intrigue, embittered relationships and dredged-up bad blood. Like most crime-fighters, the hefty drama of dealing with other people--all of them thoroughly undesirable characters--and their problems carries over into the personal side of things as Joe tries to balance his professional life with the tasks of caring for his aging mother and an adopted nephew. Crime buffs, mystery fans and readers in general will appreciate Wiley's feel for aspects of the big city and of Chicago's history and not-always-so-noble heritage. (MYS WILEY)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Take A Real Bite Out of Crime With New Culinary Mysteries

Apple Turnover Murder / by Joanna Fluke
Fluke’s 13th Hannah Swensen mystery has her heroine putting in long hours at her bakery, The Cookie Jar, while balancing her moderately eventful love life—dating both the town dentist and the local sheriff simultaneously. But when a third love interest, local college professor Bradford Ramsey suddenly winds up dead, Hannah must put her amateur sleuthing skills to the test as certain unlikely suspects crop up at every corner. (MYS FLUKE)
Batter Off Dead: A Pennsylvania Dutch Mystery / by Tamar Myers
Full-time mom and part-time sleuth Magdalena Yoder is eight and a half months pregnant when a local woman, the well-fed Minerva J. Jay, drops dead after consuming a hefty load of pancakes at the local Mennonite Brotherhood’s all-you-can-eat breakfast fundraiser. Now, Magdalena must balance the weight of her pregnancy with a most mysterious death. (MYS MYERS)
The Battered Body / by J.B. Stanley
The “Supper Club”, composed of librarian James, policewoman Lucy, mailman Bennett, teacher Linda and activist Gillian, are catering James’ father’s wedding to the lovely and flashy Paulette on Christmas Eve. But when the bride turns up dead the night before the ceremony, the club is in for another mind-bending mystery. (MYS STANLEY)
Bone Appetit / by Carolyn Haines
Sarah Booth Delaney has just had a miscarriage and decided that the best way to heal from her loss is to get away from things for a bit. Enrolling at the Viking Cooking School with her best friend and fellow amateur sleuth Tinkie, Sarah begins preparing for the ceremony at a beauty contest. But when several contestants become fatally ill, Sarah and Tinkie must re-engage their detective skills to solve one mystery that’s getting stranger by the minute. (MYS HAINES)
A Catered Birthday Party: A Mystery With Recipes / by Isis Crawford
Sisters Bernie and Libby Simmons own A Little Taste of Heaven catering service and really have a chance to impress with their latest gig, doing a birthday luncheon for a client. Then they discover that the birthday party’s for a dog. When the big day arrives, Bernie and Libby think they’ve got everything under control until the hostess/dog owner, Trudy, falls head-first into the soup—poisoned. (MYS CRAWFORD)

Our new U.S. Poet Laureate

Last Thursday, W.S. Merwin was named the most recent U.S. Poet Laureate. In addition to writing poetry himself, Merwin has done an extensive amount of translation. The American Academy of Poets website has a really nice webpage on Merwin, which you can access by clicking here. It includes a biography, links to some of his poems, some audio clips of Merwin reading his poetry, and a video of an interview that includes a section where Merwin reads his poem "Late Spring."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Eating With The Enemy: How I Waged Peace With North Korea From My BBQ Shack in Hackensack / by Robert Egan and Kurt Pitzer

"I just called them up." (p. 12)
Robert Egan began life unextraordinarily enough. Raised in a "mobbed-up" working class part of northern New Jersey, he dropped out of high school in the mid-1970's, spent a few years working construction, building roofs and getting by with various odd jobs. One thing which had always interested him was war, the Vietnam War especially (Egan had intended to sign up as soon as he was old enough, but the war ended before then) and the detainment of American POW's after the war was over. After hanging out at a few local POW/MIA gatherings, in which participants staged protests, and perceiving that very little was actually being done, Egan decided to get in touch with those responsible for still detaining hostages. So, one day, he called the Vietnamese delegates at the UN (Vietnam had no direct diplomatic relations with the US at the time) and began an informal relationship.
The Vietnamese, thinking him a plant by the American secret service, reciprocated Egan's outreach and modestly accommodated his unsolicited, non-tactical approach (Egan kept quiet about the POW's for a time). Before long, the two parties were on genuinely friendly terms, several of the delegates even frequenting Egan's newly opened Bar-B-Que stand in Hackensack where the relationship gradually built into something of a purely deformalized spot for discrete political talks. The following years went smoothly between Egan and his friendly patrons, and one day, in the early nineties, he was introduced to several North Korean officials who were in a mood to improve their country's relations with the US. An obliging Egan was soon introduced to the country's UN ambassador, Han Song Ryol, and over the next few years the two would remain in close contact, exchanging information and steadily relaying it to their requisite parties--Egan (now an informant for the FBI) to the Americans and Han to the North Koreans.
Things remained on a virtuously casual basis with Egan actually chaperoning the visiting North Korean athetes during the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, and being inolved on a uniquely intimate level with the controversial nation until the government politely intervened, putting a stop to the friendship between "Pyongyong Bobby" Egan and Han. This story is as implausible, inconceivable and thoroughly unconventional as it gets. And yet it's all true. And it's more than just a really, really wierd story. Egan's ability to engage in foreign policy at a grass roots level and establish communication with an enemy nation is a remarkable fable on the effectiveness one individual can have. (B EGAN)

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve in South Africa, and ten years ago he was asked if he wanted to take nine elephants that were causing problems for their owners, since the head matriarch elephant was a genius at breaking out of any kind of enclosures. He agreed, and was launched headlong into a race to save and acclimate these animals before they were killed for their destructive behavior. Unfortunately, the matriarch and her baby had already been killed after their last escape, but Lawrence only finds this out while on his journey to pick up the herd. The remaining elephants by this time have become so traumatized that after they are transported back to Anthony’s reserve, they immediately break out again. Two of the adult elephants work together to topple a 30 foot tree onto the fence, breaking the wire, then find the energizer supplying the voltage for the reserve’s outside fence, and trample it into oblivion. By the time the herd is tracked down and ready to be brought back, the local wildlife rangers are alerted concerning the herd and want to put them down immediately. Anthony literally begs for their lives, and only succeeds by reminding them of the negative publicity that such a move would generate.

The story of the elephants and Anthony’s crusade to help them finally hinges on a radical decision on his part – to abandon the accepted ways of dealing with wild elephants, and try to reach out and persuade them of his sincerity and his commitment. Step by step he does this, and the beauty of this account is how believable it is. This is another one of the growing number of books that explores how we 'manage' animals, and how we can better relate to them, for their benefit and for ours.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A little something different...

For those of you with a taste for the exotic, take a look at Michael Stanley's list of his top 10 crime novels set in Africa. The list was first published in The Guardian. Click here for a link.