Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Rock Bottom: A Novel / by Michael Shilling

"We were the next big thing once." (p. 55). That about sums it up for Blood Orphans. Not so long ago, they were on top of the charts and on top of the world as one of the most talked about hard rock bands around. Back in the day in the midst of the always overcrowded LA music scene, the Orphans were the darlings, one group deemed by everyone to break it big. All of the necessary pieces were in place: Shane the edgy, charismatic and spiritually-attuned lead singer; Darlo the all-out libertine for a drummer; wonderboy guitar prodigy Adam; and a soulful bass player, Bobby, the unspoken glue holding together the foursome. And of course they had the all-important recording contract with a reputable label, a booking agent, the right A and R people and the backing of loyal fans.
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Then everything went south. Their dreams turned to mush just like Bobby's hands which, in eerily corresponding fashion, succombed to a particularly virulent strain of eczema. Like anything else which falls apart, it wasn't just one thing which caused the burgeoning supergroup's crash back to oblivion. Through a series of ill-fated concert expeditions, bad management moves by drugged-out agents, multiple personal indiscretions as well as scandalous incidents both public and private, Blood Orphans took an irreversible nosedive. Now in Amsterdam, their last stop of a flamed-out Euro tour, the Orphans muster what they can from their rapidly fading rockstar ambitions, rehashing any verifiable good times of old while clinging to their last days of alcohol/sex/drugs/rebellion, all the time trying to pinpoint just what went wrong.
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Where Spinal Tap (DVD THIS) lovingly parodied the the world of faux rock stardom through the farcical comeback tour of an aging, washed-up and thoroughly delusional heavy metal band, Rock Bottom pulls no punches in its more hard-edged pursuit of a tragic truth. It decries, derides and downright defames the built-in romanticism of Rock n' Roll riches, revealing a largely undignified world of despair, exploitation and self-destruction. Though at times humorous and witty, nothing seems very lighthearted about the story which is really a backstory of the band's rise and fall, retold in parts by each of the four members during one 24-hour period. It's an honest rendition by a quartet of tired, disappointed, angry and thoroughly disillusioned musicians on what they feel has been the anti-climactic pinnacle of their young lives. As a "recovering rock musician" himself, Shilling knows his subject matter. Having lived the Seattle grunge scene as a bit player for numerous bands, he tells a story worth hearing about a band which never quite made it. Simultaneously and to his credit, he manages to avoid any of the smarmy, over-the-top portrayals similar platforms (VH1's Behind The Music) have dispensed with in the past, instead delving into the very human, very visceral, thoroughly flawed but perhaps not totally irredeemable worlds of his characters. (FIC SHILLING)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge


Although this book was first published in 1929, it still has resonance as a novel commenting on the fate of the native American Indian tribes when their lands were invaded by the settlers from European countries. Oliver La Farge, the author, was an anthropologist who studied the Mayan culture in Central America and the Indian population of the American Southwest.

The story concerns Laughing Boy, a young Navajo man who meets another young Navajo woman, Slim Girl, at a native dance ceremony, and falls in love with her. She actually seeks him out, but is not as smitten with love as he is. Her motives are more self-seeking, as she is determined to use him to remold her life into an Indian one.

What we know about Slim Girl is her resolve and her anger against white people. She was reared away from her family in a missionary school. As a young woman, she had embraced the Christian faith and the American culture, when something happened that caused her to abandon the whites and all that they offered her. When she meets Laughing Boy, she has renounced her upbringing, and is trying to find her way back to her people and their values.

Right away, Slim Girl finds that her course is not so simple, and that she could not foresee the complications that present themselves. She herself falls deeply in love, and finds herself in sway to a “real” Navajo brave…one who can order her to wait when an adventure calls him. Tension in the story arises from Slim Girls’ hidden strategies to have an Indian life, but one without undue hardship and sacrifice.

The story is as much a love story as a story of Slim Girl’s “hubris”, and how her ruthless planning will rend the two asunder. With vivid descriptions of the Navajo religious ceremonies and of the beautiful desert setting, the book is a testimony to how the Indian’s tribal life managed to linger on, before the white man’s civilization fully encroached it.

Fail Nation: A Visual Romp Through the World of Epic Fails / Failblog.org Community, eds.


The word "fail" has taken on a different meaning in this new millenium. No longer does it indicate a mere lack of success, limited achievability or inadequate results. Nowadays it's become a hip term in the American slang vocabulary, connoting mishaps, mistakes and other ironical human failings of extraordinary imbecility or of an otherwise ludicrously tragic nature. Something or someone may deemed a "fail" or even an "epic fail" in situations when the circumstances are absurdly ridiculous to the point of being just plain pitiful (see image at right). An extensive network of online contributors has taken it upon themselves to maintain an interactive website, a blog actually called failblog.org, which chronicles the world of fails, epic fails and other occasions of humanity's inglorious shortcomings. The book Fail Nation offers a generous sample of the blog's material though certainly only a small portion of the website's multitude of funny anecdotes. (818.602 FAIL)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story Of The Company That Is Connecting The World / by David Kirkpatrick

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It started off simply enough. In 2003, 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg was a sophomore at Harvard when he hacked into the university database and devised an interactive website which invited students to compare the looks of their fellow classmates. From this slightly sordid endeavor sprung the brainchild that would become Facebook. In roughly five years, Zuckerberg and a small assortment of business partners grew the company to its current monolithic status, influencing the development of online communities and connecting people all over the world in the process.
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Facebook is now the largest social network, having recently overtaken Myspace and Twitter and maintaining a steady lead over the rest of the pack. Despite its drawbacks including urgent claims about invasion of privacy, allowances for potentially harmful situations, borderline illicit content and matters of intellectual freedom, it grows larger everyday with multitudes of newer converts added to the directory hourly. It's rare to find high school or college students, and increasingly more adults who do not maintain a personal account and routinely visit the site. And while its potential pitfalls are readily pointed out, most won't argue over its staying power. Facebook has demonstrated a flexible attitude of adaptability to accompany its progressive innovation, becoming a thoroughly "familiar and ubiquitous part of the Internet." (p. 85). Furthermore, the impact of the site is so profound that it's influencing lives offline as well as online, re-envisioning the world of who our "friends" really are and how we connect.
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Veteran technology journalist and author David Kirkpatrick investigates the phenomenon which has revolutionized the concept of social life, and indeed altered the nature of marketing and communications. With the full cooperation of the company's executives including founder and current CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Kirkpatrick dissects both the role and function of Facebook, examining the remarkable rise of the company which is now among the world's fastest growing corporations. The author also does a good job tying everything together well enough for technology novices and persons outside the social networking clique to grasp. So for anyone unfamiliar with the site, the general concept and pertinent details are provided in solid, plausible explanations. The movie The Social Network, which appears soon in theaters, chronicles essentially the same story albeit without Zuckerberg's cooperation who has since claimed that he'd "just wished that nobody made a movie about me while I was still alive."* (338.7 KIRKPATRICK)
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*Fried, Ina. "Zuckerberg on the Hotseat at D8". Beyond Binary. CNET.com. June 2, 2010.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik


The latest book in the Temeraire series, book 6, finds Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire in Australia, at the time of the Napoleonic wars. The author Novik is a history buff and writes convincingly of the details of war as waged at that time. However, this is an “alternate” history, and these Napoleonic wars, while covering much of the same territory as their real counterparts, differ significantly in events, such as Napoleon actually invading England in Victory of Eagles, Book 5. While many praise Novik for her realistic portrayal of historical settings, and others imply that readers who simply love dragons are lining up at book signings, in my opinion the strength of these books goes far beyond possessing those two elements. Her ability to pull you into the action and circumstances of each chapter, without your noticing it, shows what some reviewers have commented on – prose that carries no excess weight or dreary detail. What I have found tremendous is her consummate skill in ending chapters, so that just as you feel as despairing of circumstance as Temeraire or Laurence might be feeling, in one stroke all is changed.

The two are in New South Wales, a British prison colony, since Laurence was condemned as a traitor to Britain and Temeraire along with him. Neither are prisoners, however, since Laurence’s sentence was changed to being deported. While they continue on adventures with British forces, their status has changed and they might, if they wished, leave it all behind and retire to a farm in the interior. Somehow you know this will not happen. Novik likes showing the underside of politics --- how fine or not so fine intentions of leaders or countries end up being implemented with consequences brutal to both soldiers and civilians. This book has struck some readers as dreary, as there is a long overland passage involved, as in Book 3. In my view, Novik is depicting how tiring and numbing such journeys can be. And if I can’t actually be there, I appreciate feeling as if I am. (there are some nice excerpts of an interview with Naomi Novik at io9.com/5634183)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Catch-22: A Novel / by Joseph Heller

For readers accustomed to novels possessing a linear structure and straightforward narrative, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 may seem an incoherent, jumbled series of confusing characters and disconnected episodes. Many critics said as much upon its publication in 1961. But to the more enlightened audience, the novel is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. Born in Brooklyn in 1923, Joseph Heller grew up the only child of Russian immigrants. In 1941 at the age of 19, he joined the Army Air Corps as a bomber pilot in training and subsequently flew over 60 combat missions in the European theater. Upon his return stateside, Heller worked as a copy editor while crafting his concept for the story which would become Catch-22. The satirical wartime novel chronicling the individual's place amid an erratic institutional bureaucracy swiftly became a classic and remains so today.


There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind . . . Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. "That's some catch that Catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed. (p. 46)
Capt. John Yossarian is an American bomber pilot in the final months of World War II. Having already flown well over the designated 40 flying sorties, or missions required by the Army, Yossarian is nonetheless kept around on active duty by his seemingly idiotic superior officers who see to it that the quota number of sorties are repeatedly raised. It's not just the number of combat missions. The entire squadron is certifiably crazy, it seems to Yossarian, who finds common sense and logic nominally absent from the base's operational system, the entire chain of command appearing to function with a misplaced agenda.
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It all seems a big muddle from the outside looking in. But is it? Though everyone and everything seems ludicrous to a T, bent on insanity and lunacy, the self-perception within the squadron isn't so drastic. Visibly, the atmosphere is relatively docile with the men seeming to accept the way things are. The absurdity of incidents like a captain promoted to major simply because his last name is "Major" (so he could be called "Major Major"), a discharged private who's continually given the most important duties, a colonel's reason for action based solely on what others think of him, or the company mess officer orchestrating the bombing of his own men are accepted as perfectly permissible activities or otherwise inconsequential dealings. What really matters, it seems, isn't quite what really matters.
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More than anything else, Catch-22 embodies its title phrase--the self-contradictory, circular reasoning evoking a no-win situation. The structure and style of the novel itself are like this, the prose always repetitive and paradoxical, reiterating themes of irrationality and nonsensical logic all purported as sound doctrine and ingenuity. Yet it's this seemingly ridiculous pattern of disjointed incoherency which makes the book so profound. For within the double-speak and literary hodgepodge is a deadly serious diatribe on war, peace, life and death, brilliantly illuminating the ordered chaos of military combat which inevitably subjects individuals to disorientation and futility. The 1970 film version (DVD CATCH) of the book starring Alan Arkin, John Voight and Orson Welles received lukewarm reviews but has garnered an appreciable fanbase and "cult" status in subsequent years. (FIC HELLER)

Friday, September 17, 2010

The quest for substantial reading

Check out Wall Street Journal journalist Cynthia Crossen's suggestions to a reader who wants to commemorate a milestone birthday by reading Important Literature that can double as a door stopper. Read her article here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Book of Air and Shadows / by Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber holds a Ph.D. in Marine Biology, has been a federal official for the Environmental Protection Agency and was a political advisor and speech writer for the Carter administration. Before banking off his own name as a novelist, Gruber was generally acknowledged as the primary ghostwriter for his cousin Robert K. Tanenbaum whose "Butch Karp" novels became worldwide bestsellers. His 2007 literary thriller The Book of Air and Shadows explores the possibility of an undiscovered Shakespearean work and the madcap race to claim the prize.
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When an antiquarian bookstore in central Manhattan mysteriously burns down, store clerk and film student Albert Crosetti thinks he's out of a job. But while sifting through the rubble, he finds a strange book inside of which are remnants of an ages-old, handwritten manuscript. Though the writing on the parchment is English, it's very old English ("Of the lodgeres heere the greater parte be drovers & some plaiers," p. 214) and Crosetti spends the remainder of his day trying to decipher the oddly composed document, soon reaching the determination that he's reading a correspondence piece authored by an Elizabethan-era soldier acting as an aid-de-camp to the royal throne.
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Meanwhile Jake Mishkin is a frightened, paranoid and somewhat cranky intellectual property lawyer currently hiding out from a gang of Russian mobsters. A few months previous, Jake had agreed to advise a panicked English professor on how to secure the rights to 17th century letter which may pinpoint the location of an unknown Shakespeare play. Two days after their meeting, the professor was found tortured to death and Jake was being pursued by the same menacing assortment of perpetrators. But when fate brings Jake into contact with Albert Crosetti, who ironically knows about another similar old letter, the pair escape New York and begin their own daring adventure to follow the case's trail to England and claim the prized manuscript.
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Gruber's first standalone novel (he's published a detective-mystery trilogy and a short story collection previous) is a great literary thriller, effectively and comprehensively meshing the genres of classic literature, worthwhile history, epistolary intrigue and contemporary suspense into one fascinating story. It's a book equally dominated by both the past and the present, coupling the legendary William Shakespeare, his life and times, with the conventional hurly-burly of New York City, London and further quagmires of modernity. As well, it alludes to the current legal matters involving intellectual property, an author's rights and public domain--all relevant ongoing issues of today which inevitably tie us to the world of the past. (FIC GRUBER)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Eat, Pray, Love Phenomenon

Eat, Pray, Love: 108 Tales About One Woman's Search for Pleasure, Devotion and Balance Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert (B GILBERT) explores the globetrotting, soul-searching journey of one woman who wants to find true meaning in life. The book, published in 2006, soon became a worldwide bestseller and the film version starring Julia Roberts is in theaters now. A recent Galveston Daily News article reviews the book and highlights Gilbert's speaking appearance at UTMB on March 31, 2011.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents / by Alex Butterworth

Much like our own era which has been plagued by terrorism, the latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed a distinct rise in subversive political activity in traditionalized Western societies and abroad. From approximately 1871 when the Paris Commune brought about a schism between Marxists and anarchists, countries all across Europe as well as America experienced a new wave of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activity largely stemming from unstable economies and a strong divide between rich and poor. Underground political movements, independent groups of reactionary citizens and other socialist enterprises began forming as never before. Led by charismatic leaders who preached change and transformation, promoting new ideas and outright revolution towards the powers that be, the situation inevitably gave way to acts of insurrection which, then as now, were perpetrated through aggressive coercion and random acts of violence.
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Author Alex Butterworth well-characterizes the period by describing a collection of heretofore unknown about revolutionaries who never quite changed the world but nonetheless contributed some interesting anecdotes to history. It was an age, not unlike our own, in which middle-class citizens, ordinary working folk and others not affiliated with any of the popular radical ideologies remained subjects to fear, prone to anxiety over the instability of governments and the rising tide of rebellion. Staged protests and peaceful demonstrations gave rise to bombings, assassinations and other violent exploits. As aggressive power struggles spilled over into the political arena, creating diplomatic messes and wreaking further havoc internationally, things escalated into all out wars (World War I specifically) between nations and empires and, in the case of Russia, a full-blown revolution.
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The wave of upheaval a century ago was not only representative of today's world in terms of the paranoia, suspicion and skepticism, it was strikingly familiar claims Butterworth, almost a duplicate reproduction of the conflicting, sometimes arbitrary attitudes about our society. Mistrust of elected officials and ruling entities accompanied a pervading sense of unrest back then, just as nowadays partisan politics and terrorism has created instability even within our more prosperous New World Order. History repeats itself. (335.83 BUTTERWO)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Touch-Me-Not: A Martha's Vineyard Mystery / by Cynthia Riggs

In Martha's Vineyard, a knitting circle meets weekly at the local library to work on a quilt, the project part of an awareness campaign on global warming. Things aren't so pleasant though when a series of anonymous crank calls begins to target select group members. Not knowing what to do, and with the personal threats growing more menacing, the group calls upon writer and village sleuth Victoria Trumbull--92 years young and still sharp as a tack--to help investigate. As it turns out, the messages--some of them directed at Victoria's granddaughter Elizabeth--may be connected to a current missing persons case. Around the same time the calls began, local tradesman Jerry Sparks stopped being seen around town. His family and friends have lost touch with him and there's no evidence to suggest he may have gone on a trip.
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Even with enough energy to confront the mystery head on, and meanwhile continue to write poetry, perfect her patented specialty foods, and assist Police Chief Casey O'Neill with other matters, Victoria recognizes her need for help and summons her daughter Amelia (Elizabeth's mother) from California to help monitor things. When a dead body suddenly turns up, Victoria and the gals know they have a very dangerous situation on their hands. It will take all of Victoria's cunning and crafty sleuthing skills to get to the bottom of this yarn, and, at the same time, keep everyone around her from freaking out.
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Cynthia Riggs is a thirteenth-generation resident of Martha's Vineyard. Within her home which dates back to the 1700's, she operates a bed-and-breakfast catering mostly to artists and writers. But don't categorize this cozy author too quickly as a grounded domestic, she's followed quite an extraordinary path. It's a life which includes travel writing for National Geographic and The Smithsonian, doing geological surveying in Antarctica, attaining a Coast Guard Master's License, owning a Ferry service and working as a rigging specialist in the shipyards of Chesapeake Bay. This latest mystery in the fascinating Victoria Trumbull series demonstrates why so many readers have grown to love Riggs' heroine, one very special woman indeed. (MYS RIGGS)

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick


Barbara Demick is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. She was stationed in South Korea in 2001, and again in 2004, to cover news for both North and South Korea. Frustrated with being unable to communicate with North Korean citizens when she travelled there in 2005, she resorted instead to extensive interviews with former North Koreans who had managed to escape to South Korea. The book tells the stories of six of these refugees, from about 1994 to 2009, covering the period of the famine, which began in the early 1990’s and was most intense through 1997 and 1998, when up to or more than 2 million people perished. These six refugees lived in the northern city of Chongjin, on the coast of the sea of Japan. They have different backgrounds and aspirations, some hoping to rise through the Party, others slowly becoming disillusioned with the repression they experience.

What is most numbing about the book is how the people in North Korea really know nothing about the outside world, not even what life is like in South Korea or China, their neighbors. While we have heard of their cultural isolation, the details of their experiences truly illuminate their condition. One woman is smuggled into China, left to make her way alone to the nearest village. She sees food in a dish outside of a house, for the dog, and realizes that all these rumors of the “well-fed” Chinese are true, since no such food is placed outside in North Korea. A common escape route to South Korea is by way of China, and one of the dangers facing the refugees is that their emaciated figures immediately stand out in Chinese society, making it hard to stay hidden. People survive the famine by any means, and many do not. In the Chongjin train station, where many people congregated, each day cleaning staff went through the crowd identifying those who had died, and taking them off in carts for burial. One woman’s story stands out…how her husband had taken to his bed, legs swollen from starvation, and began talking incessantly to her of food and restaurants. They hadn’t eaten in 3 days, and there were no restaurants. She runs through the town frantically asking people for some food, acquiring some noodles, only to return and find him dead, past caring about anything to eat.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Homesick / by Eshkol Nevo; trans. from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

In modern-day Israel, Amir and Noa are a young Jewish couple who decide to move in together. Both students, respectively at universities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, they select a small apartment roughly midway between the cities in a village called Mevasseret, a town vacated by Palestinians in 1948. Though content with their humble accommodations, it's not quite as secluded as they'd like. Constant bickering between their landlord Moshe and his wife Sima, who live in the neighboring apartment, interrupt their time together just as other nearby tenants seemingly can't help impeding on the young pair's happiness.
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A few doors down, a middle-aged couple still mourns the loss of their son, a soldier recently killed in Lebanon. Yotam, the couples neglected younger son wanders about the complex, soon forming an odd friendship with Amir. Keeping a curious eye on everyone is a Palestinian construction worker named Saddiq, something of an unattached man who curiously hangs around in creepy fashion, mindful of the fact that this was where his own family used to live. With time, Amir and Noa find that their new home is fraught with the same problems, much of it other people's problems spilling over into their own lives, which originally prompted their desire to move.
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Israeli author Nevo weaves together a stimulating portrait of domestic life set in one of the world's most scrutinized places. Readers shouldn't expect a very linear, straightforward structure from the author who seems at his best telling the story through multi-perspective, first person disclosures. Actually set in 1995, the narrative jumps around from person to person, voice to voice, sharing intimate details along with banal, seemingly insignificant tidbits. Intermittent "chorus" poems spliced between the chapters offer cultural side-notes shining light on the world the characters inhabit--definitely not the Israel of nightly news reports though certainly nothing resembling western civilization's model for a peaceable society. (FIC NEVO)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Globish: How The English Language Became The World's Language / by Robert McCrumb

The onset of the new millenium has seen English unquestionably become 'the world's language'. Despite there being more overall speakers of traditional Chinese-Cantonese and roughly the same amount of first-tongue Spanish speakers, English is the most all-encompassing, most proliferated, most diversified and decentralized language spoken throughout the world. It is the universal communications platform for all international business networks, the defacto lexicon in the integration of technology and the choice medium among most non-English speaking parties. And while much of author McCrum's analysis focuses on the etymology and evolution of English over the centuries, a good chunk of his central thesis is devoted to the impact the language has had on actual lives, how its shaped the world as we know it and what it's role will be in the future.
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McCrum's description of how things got where they are today is easy enough to follow. As casual history buffs may be aware of, the English speech, vocabulary and syntax is something of an amalgamation of other shared tongues. The English-speaking peoples as far back as King Alfred the Great circa 850 B.C. basically honed their language by splicing the Saxon Germanic-tongue with Latin-based imports, most notably French after the Norman Conquest in 1066. As Britain grew into a sovereign territory, a kingdom and finally a commonwealth, the language traveled across the globe spanning countries, generations and migrations of peoples from all different backgrounds. The final two centuries of the second millenium saw the full-fledged impact of the British Empire and Americanization which imprinted the language around the world, permanently overtaking French and Spanish as the official lingua franca and choice mode of communication among global entities.
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McCrum points out that English, more so than any other language, represents the fundamentals of individual freedom, democracy, and capitalism, something the author colorfully details in his chapter "The Audacity of Hope" among others. The diction itself offers as many different dialects, derivatives, ethnic variants, colloquial cach├ęs and vernacular offshoots as there are places which speak it. With the flattening of the world, English has become its own vehicle so to speak, one which knows no bounds, carries few restrictions and offers a diversified way of self-expression. Further reading about English as the 'lingua globa' and McCrum's book can be found here in this recent NPR piece. (420.9 MCCRUM)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Border Lit: Fiction Highlighting the US-Mexico Border

Caramba!: A Tale Told in Turns of the Card / by Nina Marie Martinez
Plenty more is going on in Lava Landing, CA than most people know about. The small border town is home to a dormant volcano, a beauty pageant which crowns a Miss Magma each year, and some of the best sounding mariachi music ever played. It’s also where two bosom buddies Natalie and Consuelo are planning a strange trip into Mexico, one which aims to cross dimensions as well as borders. (FIC MARTINEZ)
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The Creed of Violence / by Boston Teran
In 1910, the Mexican Revolution is in full swing and arms smuggler named Rawbone is in the thick of it. A man who deals in guns as well as lives (he’s also an assassin-for-hire), Rawbone lives the cutthroat life until he’s caught by US authorities. When his only way out is to inform on some of his cronies, Rawbone relents and is escorted back across the border to help infiltrate a very violent world of treachery and betrayal. (FIC TERAN)
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Crossers: A Novel / by Philip Caputo
Devastated following the death of his wife, Gil Castle leaves his posh Manhattan surroundings for his family’s ranch in Arizona. The land, which straddles the Mexican border, is definitely not as peaceful as it looks. A fact which is evidenced almost immediately when Gil discovers a badly beaten, left-for-dead Mexican illegal on the property. This episode is only the beginning as Gil soon butts heads with the ruthless owner of a local drug cartel along with some far worse characters. (FIC CAPUTO)
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No Country For Old Men / by Cormac McCarthy
While hunting for antelope near the Texas-Mexico border, Llewellyn Moss comes across a mutilated band of Mexican drug traffickers, all of them dead or dying after a drug deal gone bad. Llewellyn steals away with the over $2 million loot found on the scene only to be pursued by members of the Mexican cartel, DEA officials, local police and one particularly dangerous sociopath named Anton Chigurh. (FIC MCCARTHY)
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Far Bright Star: A Novel / by Robert Olmstead
Napoleon Childs is an aging professional soldier in 1916 when he’s sent in search of the Mexican renegade Pancho Villa. When he and his platoon of troops lose track of the elusive Pancho, they become disoriented and are attacked by a gang of marauding bandits who kill most of the party, leaving only Napoleon to die alone in the desert. (FIC OLMSTEAD)
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The River Flows North: A Novel / by Graciela Limon
A small band of Mexicans seeking to cross the Sonora desert into the US mutually hire a "coyote", or escort for the purpose. Though they’re facilitated with the necessary means and proper guidance to make it into Arizona, feelings of anxiety, suspicion and impending doom creep into the atmosphere as the party nears their destination. (FIC LIMON)

This first novel of Charles Frazier's, which came out in 1977, won critical acclaim for its portrayal of a Confederate soldier’s journey back to his Appalachian mountain home in North Carolina. He was wounded and is still recovering when he decides to desert from the army hospital. He is sickened by war and the killing he has witnessed, and only wants to go home. He is not thinking of reuniting with his family, but with the woman he loves. It’s not clear how long the soldier, Inman, has lived near Cold Mountain, but he loves it and is hankering for it almost as much as for his love, Ada. One reviewer, Charles McGrath of the New York Times, speculated that this book was so popular because of its underlying premise that people were simpler and purer then – that they had a closer tie to the land and to each other. We like these stories, where the journey is fraught with danger and defeat, and we like Ada’s story of a city girl learning to be a farmer, after her father’s death. All of the farming details are satisfying, especially if we don’t have to be there, living through those backbreaking chores. There’s nothing good about war, in Frazier’s viewpoint, and the men who run away are victims to be hounded by Federal troops and local volunteers who are happy to get paid for each deserter they catch. Except they’re not only caught but in many cases killed, for no reason but just meanness and spite. Frazier seems to be saying that there are plenty of villains, but no heroes, just people like Inman dishing out vengeance where needed, although it’s never enough.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) DVD / A Spike Lee Film; an HBO Original Documentary Films Event

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If it keeps on raining levee's going to break
. .When the levee breaks have no place to stay
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The title "When The Levees Broke" references a song popularized by Led Zeppelin but first recorded by Delta Blues tandem Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy. The original dates back to the depression and is an ode to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in which thousands of Mississippi Delta residents lost their homes and livelihoods, many having to permanently relocate to places like Chicago or Kansas City. The ironical ballad, with its haunting melody and chorus is a spot-on title for this revealing documentary, likely among the most important films Spike Lee and HBO have ever made. In addition to erasing many pre-conceived notions pertaining to Lee’s projects, the piece represents a cumulative voice of the Katrina disaster victims. It's an aggressively vocal, emotionally powerful and thoroughly detailed exposition on the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina as told by the survivors.
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It’s also a documentary in the truest sense--over 4 hours in length, with literally hundreds of images, dozens of interviews and a fully comprehensive analysis of exactly what went down. The film was even scored by Terence Blanchard, a Spike Lee collaborator and New Orleans native, who was coincidentally raised in the ninth ward in a house destroyed by the flooding. Nothing is withheld, nothing is censored. Perspectives on the plight of the city are portrayed through eyes of everyone. Testimonies include that of politicians and pedestrians; white, black, rich and poor; from those sheltering in the Superdome to those who escaped before the storm hit. Analysis is presented by structural engineers who assess why the levees broke and civilians who suspect otherwise.
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Among those featured are the multitudes left stranded on rooftops as well as the hundreds of homeless, disabled and displaced others all abruptly relocated against their will away from their families. Celebrities present at ground zero like Wynton Marsalis and Sean Penn offer their stories (Penn literally dropped everything flew to New Orleans from California after seeing a news brief). Journalists like Soledad O’Brien, who conducted a series of baffling interviews with infamous FEMA Director Michael Brown about the absence of federal aid, and WWL radio host Garland Robinette recall the maddening communications disaster and emergency management gaffe which imperiled the lives of thousands and imprinted a legacy of enmity and distrust towards government officials. For anyone with Louisiana ties or for those even remotely connected to New Orleans or the Gulf Region, this is a must see. (DVD 976.335044 WHEN)
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Recently a follow-up documentary mini-series "If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise", also by Spike Lee in partnership with HBO, was broadcast. Showing the lasting legacy of Hurricane Katrina, it reconnects with many of the original interviewees and looks back at the disaster while investigating how things have (or haven't) changed in the five years since the tragedy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Zeitoun / by Dave Eggers

Syrian-born Abdulrahman Zeitoun was an American citizen a New Orleans resident when Hurricane Katrina hit. Like so many others, he'd merely been minding his own business up until the disaster, seeing to his affairs and looking after his loved ones. Electing to send his family out of town to stay with relatives as the storm approached, he himself stayed behind to watch over his private business, a contract construction company. But when the levees broke and as much of the city rapidly became submerged, Zeitoun set out in his small canoe, helping to rescue people as the waters rose. His individual relief efforts met with some strange fortune and ill fate, however, as amid the chaos and confusion of the tragedy, he was abruptly arrested on dubious charges which included accusations that he was a terrorist and a member of Al-Queda. Details about Zeitoun's subsequent harrowing personal experiences are described in vivid detail.
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Dave Eggers has been something of a literary wunderkind since his novel What Is The What (FIC EGGERS) burst on to the scene in 2006. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated Zeitoun reveals why. With brilliant illumination and exceptional candor, Eggers recounts the tragedy that befell Abdulrahman Zeitoun. Retold through an extensive collection of news stories, official documents and personal interviews, the author recreates a tale of an almost inconceivable nature yet a true American story all the same. It's no wonder that both the book and Eggers himself continue to be showered with applause and awards (see here). The work is a true masterpiece with a definitive and lasting impact, one which will no doubt be a longstanding classic with a message resonating throughout the 21st century. The Zeitoun Foundation has even been set up with a goal to help rebuild New Orleans while at the same time promoting further understanding between peoples of different faiths around the world. A movie adaptation is also in the works. (976.335064 EGGERS)