Friday, October 29, 2010

Scared Stiff: A Mattie Winston Mystery / by Annelise Ryan

Most people expect a little faux horror during Halloween. But blending all the fake blood and skeletons with an actual corpse is a little too macabre for the folks of Sorensen, Wisconsin who are shocked after some trick-or-treaters happen upon the dead body of a young woman--murdered. Shannon Tolliver, a waitress and part-time model, is the unlucky victim having been shot in the chest with a .38 caliber handgun leading the county's homicide unit to tab her estranged husband Erik as suspect numero uno. But Sorensen's deputy coroner Mattie Winston isn't so sure. Having known the couple personally, Mattie knows that Erik loved his wife despite their recent marital problems--recent arguments (some of them public) leading to a separation and Shannon starting with a new boyfriend--and could never be driven to such a violent act even if he does, coincidentally, own a licensed .38 caliber handgun.
The task of helping clear Erik won't be easy. For Mattie to help out with the case, she'll have to tax the utmost of her admirable forensic pathology skills and limited ballistics experience to even have a chance at getting Erik's name off the prime suspect list. And she'll have to do some snooping around on her own to come up with some clues on who the real culprit might be. Clearing one man and bringing another to justice seems a task, but it's a little less daunting knowing that she gets to work in close proximity with hunky homicide detective Steve Hurley, the very man she'll have to convince that he's wrong. Hurley, the man who originally took Erik into custody, is not only dashingly handsome, he's a good detective and Mattie now has it doubly hard as she finds herself falling for him at the same time she's trying to outwit him.
Ryan has a knack for pairing humor and crime. An RN herself, she's familiar with more than just writing and goes toe-to-toe with more hardcore forensic/police procedural authors, not shy about getting her heroine Mattie Winston's hands dirty when it comes to uncovering evidence and catching the villain. Many hard-boiled crime novels and police procedurals tend to have an edge of menace about them: the world is a no-nonsense place where violent crime and frivolous elements (à la romantic comedy) just don't mix well. But the author doesn't seem to have a problem characterizing her funny, likeable protagonist who can have a laugh at herself (some have compared Mattie Winston to Stephanie Plum) and not hesitate to wade wrist-deep into the blood and guts--literally, she's a coroner--of the crime. This is Ryan's third book in the series. (MYS RYAN)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

101 Things I Learned In . . .

Sometimes its nice just to have the facts. With accreditated education programs involved with nearly every profession and vocation, proper training is essential. But what if there were a way to condense the pertinent concepts into one resource, or one book? Now, there is. TM Publishing in association with institutions like MIT has introduced a nifty new set of introductory level books for curious types who may have wanted to do things like culinary arts, architecture, fashion or film school but never really found the time or didn't have the means. '101 Things' present a snapshot of the professions in question, each a good all-around resource for continuing education students of all ages. Every one of the 101 individual tidbits listed in each book are accompanied by clever illustrations and diagrams which break down the basic components of various technical processes and industry jargon (like how to "control the back-story" if you're doing a film or how to employ the various "specialty knife cuts" when you're cooking). The books don't dismiss the aspects of a more engrossed process of learning (i.e., textbooks, lectures & exams), but they do give a good insider's guide to just how various fields of study and professional development go about their business.
The text is very plain-language and readable, making these non-fiction books a particularly accessible (and fun) resource. The library currently has 3 '101 things' books available: 101 Things I Learned in Culinary School (641.5092 EGUARAS), 101 Things I Learned in Film School (791.430232 LANDAU), & 101 Things I Learned in Fashion School (746.92 CABRERA)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

So Cold The River / by Michael Koryta

"He wasn't crazy. There was something about that picture." (p. 8)
Downtrodden filmmaker Eric Shaw is barely making ends meet when a wealthy client hires him to do a video documentary of her father-in-law, a reclusive 95-year-old billionaire named Campbell Bradford. Needing the money, Eric takes the job and travels to the rural town West Baden, Indiana to meet the mysterious nanogenarian soon discovering that there's something very strange about both Bradford and the isolated town itself. Once a resort hotspot, West Baden possesses a natural hot springs reputed to miraculously cure all types of ailments with its special mineral water and, in the spirit of revival, the town has made efforts to revisit its glory years. The resort's once-fabulous hotel, where the wealthy elite congregated decades ago, has even been refurbished to resemble its former grandeur. It's here where Eric has been put up for his stay.
Though he's in OK health, Eric festively takes a swig of the spring's famed natural elixir and immediately begins having visions of an an extraordinarily horrific nature. At the same time, he starts to learn more about Campbell Bradford, both the elderly alive man he interacts with and another Campbell Bradford, one supposedly long dead. In the following days, Eric's dreams and hallucinations become increasingly more coherent, showing him the West Baden that once was and a resurgent evil back from the past. As his surroundings become more distorted and his convictions less certain, Eric does all he can to confront the horror unfolding before him. Koryta's list of mystery-thrillers have impressed in the short span he's been on the radar (he's only 28) and this well-crafted horror tale attests to his skill at storytelling. The hotel in West Baden draws more than a few comparisons to Stephen King's Overlook Hotel in The Shining (FIC KING), but the author fashions his content with his own stylized attributes, evolving the story through the origins of the supernatural evil haunting the characters right up until the inevitable showdown. (FIC KORYTA)

Freedom: A Novel / by Jonathan Franzen

St. Louis native Jonathan Franzen attended Swarthmore College and was a Fulbright Scholar priveleged enough to study in Germany. He's stuck close to his midwestern roots as an author though, setting many of his stories and characters places like Minnesota or Wisconsin and highlighting many of the themes inherent of the region. In addition to writing novels, he’s been a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Harper’s where his talent as an essayist is well-known. His 2001 novel The Corrections won the National Book Award and became an Oprah’s Book Club selection despite Franzen’s personal opposition to the choice; he felt the ‘Oprah’s’ tag might designate the book for a predominately female audience whereas he'd personally hoped to reach more male readers. Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections, observes a family of progressive-minded Midwesterners through the latter decades of the twentieth century up until the most recent presidential election.
The Berglunds of St. Paul, MN like to see themselves as making a difference. The liberal-minded couple, Walter and Patty, and their two children Jessica and Joey, are one of the first families to move back into the city from the suburbs, intent on renovating their “project” of a house and spearheading other urban renewal initiatives. From the neighbors’ perspective, the Berglunds are alright. Patty is the energetic mom, Walter is the level-headed lawyer promoting environmentalist causes, Jessica likes school and Joey, well, Joey likes his independence. From early on, Joey demonstrates his desire to do things his own way and with time develops severe rebellious streak, one which ironically fits well with his intense relationship with Connie Monaghan. Connie, the single-parent girl from down the street, starts a romance with Joey which sparks a rift between Joey and his parents. Tension escalates to an alarming level within the Berglund household and with their neighbors, so much so that Walter and Patty decide to relocate to Washington, D.C., a move forging a bitter physical and emotional rift with their son Joey.
This period allows Patty to take into account her life up until now. Transcribing her autobiography at the request of her therapist, Patty pens down the events leading to the current situation and how the child she once was grew and changed into the woman she is now. In her youth Patty had been quite the athlete, a basketball star in high school seemingly destined for greatness. Breaking the mold of her more un-athletic, artistic minded family who want her to follow a more mapped-out Ivy League path, Patty attended the local state school on scholarship where she first met the hunky and ecologically consicious Richard Katz. A soulful musician with a passionate desire to help the environment, Richard became the object of Patty’s affection, increasingly more so when a knee injury ended her basketball career. The feeling wasn’t quite mutual though and a devastated Patty turned to Richard’s nerdy but available roommate Walter who ultimately became her husband. Walter, the man she thinks she still loves, has been a good provider and a loving father. But it all changes when Richard Katz reenters their lives and the drama of the Berglunds takes on a wholly different twist.
Reminiscent of Updike with his thoroughly realist take on the American family and yet innovative in his approach to life in the contemporary sphere, Franzen has an adroitness about his writing which distinguishes him from other, similar writers. At times funny, lighthearted and satirical while at others dour, cynical and even morbid, Freedom introduces an archetype which is unlike any other in fiction. Here we have family in the modern generation with characters who've never really lacked for anything but aren't overly spoiled or inordinately warped, just unsure of themselves and their limitations. The Corrections was like this: a similar snapshot of nuclear family dynamics in the modern era where an overabundance of choices tends to cause problems. Characters have imbedded in them seemingly unbreakable convictions and yet aren't invulnerable to rash decisions and drastic changes of heart (Patty's marrying Walter, the Berglunds moving on a whim from the house they'd worked so hard on, Joey's switches in loyalty, etc.). It befits the title with its distinction of 'freedom', meant to connote the freedom felt within individual identity rather than the non-committal free-to-do-whatever mentality. (FIC FRANZEN)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

(This book has been reviewed by Dan in January 2010, but I'd like to add my impression of the work.)
Ms. Némirovsky, of Russian Jewish descent, grew up in Russia, but her family fled Russia during the Revolution and finally settled in France when she was 16 years old. She became a successful writer, but met an untimely end when the French government under the Nazis deported her to Auschwitz, where she died at age thirty-nine. This book has two parts, which Ms. Némirovsky wrote in the last two years of her life, chronicling the German occupation of France during World War II. From her notes, it appears that this was to be a 5 part work. Her two daughters held the manuscript for 64 years, believing it to be a sort of diary. The story was only found when one of the sisters made arrangements to donate the pages to an organization collecting writings of holocaust victims.

The first part deals with the initial days of France’s defeat at the hands of Germany, and the rush of citizens out of Paris to escape the approaching army. The writer follows more than one family’s saga, ranging from a simple middle class couple to a wealthy writer with his mistress. Some behave badly, even brutally, while others are more magnanimous. The second part of the book takes place in an occupied French village. The upper middle classes, the gentry, the farmers and the middle class are portrayed in riveting detail. Ms. Némirovsky shows our weakness for self-aggrandizement, and what our instincts for survival could translate into when occupied by a foreign army. This book is celebrated for its incisive exploration into Vichy France, a part of French history that for years was kept under wraps because of its unsavory aspects.

However, it’s interesting that Ms. Némirovsky is such an enlightened narrator of class and custom, when she herself was a Jew of a particular stamp, asking the Vichy government to be exempt from Jewish restrictions. After her arrest, her husband notes particularly to the authorities how his wife never defended the Jewish race. Critics have noted anti-Semitic elements in her previous writing, and in Suite Française’s village, there are no Jews at all. Suite Française shows us a German army of blonde, ruddy youths, respectful to the village inhabitants, singing stirring anthems while drilling. The reason they are there, as conquerors, is not altogether clear. From this grounds-eye view, there are only the victors and the vanquished, and the side that you happen to be on seems to be grounded in circumstance, not by any choice of your own. One wonders if the writer would have retained this vision if she had come back alive from Auschwitz.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Hangman's Row Enquiry: An Ivy Beasley Mystery / by Ann Purser

86-year-old Ivy Beasley's can sometimes seem a bit pushy and she does have a tendency to meddle in other people's affairs. But she means well and has a good-natured way about her, never totally out of line and just curious mostly with the intent to get to the bottom of things. Long the the most well-known busybody in Round Ringford, where within her circle of spinsters she was generally know as the cleverest as well as the bossiest, Ivy has pulled up the stakes and relocated to an assisted living home near her cousin Dierdre's house in village of Barrington. But no change of pace or altered lifestyle can limit Ivy's gregarious nature, or keep her from another mystery in which a local woman named Miriam Blake has been found dead nearby at Hangman's Row, stabbed in the heart with a bread knife.
Teaming up with Gus, another newcomer to the same nursing home and once a neighbor of the dead woman, Ivy immediately starts in on the sleuthing soon discovering that the corpse in question was worth a deceptively large amount of money. Miriam Blake's wealth didn't win the victim too many friends, however, as she'd remained a bit of a recluse of late, harrowed by people who wanted her money including her own daughter with whom a nasty feud was still simmering. With the police seemingly preoccupied with pinning the crime on the victim's daughter, Ivy suspects there's more than meets the eye and that more secrets that are yet to be uncovered. Together with Gus and Dierdre--the group having officially formed an private detective service called "Enquire Within"--Ivy steadily pieces together the discontiguous parts of the mystery, soon leading to a discovery which will shock her neighbors and everyone else in this quiety English country town.
Purser's first novel in the Ivy Beasley series is a good spin-off from her Lois Meade mysteries in which Ivy was a subordinate character yet popular with readers for her autocratic personality which slyly concealed a crafty investigative prowess. 'Hangman's Row' is no doubt as formulaic as it gets in the cozy mystery realm with police procedure barely incorporated into the narrative and circumstances a little too convenient for practical realism. But Purser knows how to keep an audience satisfied and writes in a manner which will prevent many readers from complaining about continuity issues. Her style of short, manageable chapters with succinct get-the-point-across paragraphs helps to establish the characters, build relationships and maintain a steady level of drama. (MYS PURSER)

Friday, October 22, 2010

My Stolen Son: The Nick Markowitz Story / by Susan Markowitz

On August 6, 2000, 15-year-old Nick Markowitz was just looking to stay out of harm's way. Arriving way past his curfew the night before at his San Fernando home, Nick had barely managed to stave off what he knew would be a verbal berating from both his parents but especially his mom Susan who'd issued a foreboding "we'll talk about it in the morning" as Nick retreated to his room. Sneaking out of the house in the early morning hours, Nick intended to keep away from home and maybe spend some time at the apartment of his step-brother, Ben. Only no one ever heard from him as the hours crept by and he was declared missing by the following evening. Found a few days later by hikers at a gravesite in Santa Barbara, Nick's body had been shot six times with a Tec-9 handgun and buried haphazardly in an isolated part of the canyon.
The grisly details of Nick's abduction, detainment and ultimate murder would steadily come to light as the evidence unraveled a truly shocking set of prior details about Ben Markowitz's own seedy lifestyle, his involvement in a particularly notorious Southern California drug ring and, ultimately, his fatal betrayal of a contemptible but ruthless 20-year-old drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood. Ben and Hollywood had actually grown up as friends and even played baseball together in high school before the feud over drug money had turned them into enemies, a situation making Nick a victim of circumstance when he was kidnapped. Hollywood and his gang had actually happened upon Nick while they were cruising the area in search of Ben (in hiding out of a concern for his safety) and had initially taken the youth only to use as collateral so Hollywood could extract a rather hefty drug debt owed him. But as the situation escalated with the issue still unresolved, Hollywood put his impulsive plan into action first orchestrating the shooting of Nick, ditching his accomplices (including triggerman Ryan Hoyt) and relocating to South America where he would live under a false name and as a suspect (the youngest ever) on the America's Most Wanted list until his capture in 2005.

Jesse James Hollywood
The trial of Jesse James Hollywood ironically coincided with the movie debut of Alpha Dog, the story's filmed adaptation. And while the movie version starring Bruce Willis and Emile Hirsch is nothing spectacular, the story itself is another truly creepy episode in the ongoing saga of the drug subculture permeating every rung of our society. Susan Markowitz, who wrote the book with heavy dose of editorial aid, is understandably a very sorrowful individual, grieved by the loss of her only (biological) son and the preventable circumstances of the tragedy. But the book somewhat begs the question of where the responsibility lies. There's Hollywood and his gang of accomplices, Ben Markowitz whose dissoluteness and irresponsibility led to the kidnapping and, perhaps most aggregiously, the over 42 witnesses who saw the situation for what it was--the prolonged detainment of an individual against their will--but didn't see the threat of any real danger and thus didn't report it. And, though it's never explicitly stated, some of the blame must fall on the parents. Not only is it implied that the kids (almost without exception everyone involved was under the age of 21) were largely given free reign to experiment with drugs, many of the parents (the Markowitz's included) knew beforehand that Hollywood's father Jack grew and distributed his own Marijuana, that he had prospered off drug transactions with local kingpins and had absorbed his son into the "family business" at a young age. It was common knowledge that the younger Hollywood would do anything to avoid suspicion (364.152 MARKOWIT)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ghost Monster / by Simon Clark

In the isolated English coastal village of Crowdale is a very old and decrepit cemetery, obsolete except for one very unusual feature. Situated at the graveyard's center is an oddly well-kept mausoleum interring the remains of the notorious Murrain clan, a once very powerful and feared family. Most notably the structure houses the gravesite ofJustice Murrain, the ancient family patriarch over whose tomb is embedded a most foreboding mosaic image of a demon. Long dead for centuries, the gravisite's contents nevertheless remain under constant, solemn vigil, monitored over the years by subsequent Murrains who try to keep in what everyone fears (and the Murrains know) could get out. For legendary are the stories from long ago which tell of the deranged (some say otherworldly) Justice Murrain and his demoniacal brood who once ran the town of Crowdale with a bloodthirsty iron fist, their exploits culminating in the torturous deaths of over a thousand villagers in the span of only a few decades.
Following the overthrow and particularly violent execution of Justice Murrain, the mausoleum was constructed to help ensure that that his unearthly spirit could never enter back into the land of the living. Since then, the Murrains have lived as outcasts. Doomed by the sins of their forebears to an oath of renunciation and the lonely task of securing their ancestor's imprisonment, their lineage is seen as cursed, their blood tainted with each succeeding generation the object of perpetual scorn and derision from the local populous. Now though, as soil erosion and an ambitious archaeological dig break down the earth beneath the mausoleum, Jacob Murrain (the eldest living Murrain descendant) fights against time and nature to preserve the unconsecrated ground under which his ancestor's dormant soul resides. Secretly though, Jacob cannot keep back the thoughts permeating his subconscious, voices which hint at defying his sworn duty as a guardian sentinel and avenging the Murrain name by granting release to his ancestor, effectively setting Justice Murrain free to terrorize mankind once again. 
Ghost Monster is a mass market novel but it's not a bad book, packing some punch as a worthwhile scare fest. The storyline in which an ancient evil revisits the present from beyond the grave is in itself nothing new. Graves and cemeteries, the dead rising, ages-old vendettas and demonic possession are a staple of classic horror stories, so much so that original ideas outside these parameters are somewhat suspect. But Clark cleverly devises modifications to this tried-and-true mold which give a nuanced spin to the plot providing the story a solid level of freshness and originality. Clark writes well, too, with an appeal which gets the reader interested quickly and manages to sustain the intrigue through the middle and later sections. Well-articulated characters, ominous overtones, eerie unnatural occurrences as well as a good amount of grisly gore and romantic suspense tinged with eroticism all combine to elevate the story to a solid horror experience just in time for Halloween. (FIC CLARK)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blackout by Connie Willis

If you don’t read science fiction as a rule, Connie Willis is still a wonderful writer to read. Although travelling in time plays an important part in Blackout, the rest of what happens to her characters is very much what happens to all of us, except for happening to be in London when it was bombed during World War II. So this book reads more as an historical novel than a science fiction work, at least from my viewpoint. Connie Willis believes in the ability to laugh at ourselves. She creates characters whose idiosyncrasies make us want to laugh and cry or tear our hair out, but as they get closer and closer to mortal peril, we find we just can’t disassociate ourselves from their dilemma, knowing them so well.

In Blackout, three historians have gone back from 2060 to World War II, one to observe Londoners during the bombing by the Nazis, one to observe the children evacuated out to the countryside, and one to mingle with the small fisherman who set out to rescue British soldiers from Dunkirk, France. The science of time travel has evolved around set parameters, one being that no one can travel to where they will affect the course of history. But they can get close to the main events, and then have to grapple with wanting to warn people or deflect them from catastrophe.

An earlier story of Willis’ and her book Doomsday incorporated time travel, so readers of those works will be familiar with the problems it presents. But from the start of Blackout, there are intimations that something is wrong. The research center, located in Oxford University in England, is running off-schedule, changing historian’s travel times without warning. The head of the center is off travelling or just unavailable. When the three historians, back in time, try to make contact with the present day, the portal refuses to open. Willis shows us the panic growing in each of them about their predicament, and how they are also subject to the anxiety, fear and terror of living in a time of war.

Note: this is the first part of a two part novel, the second part, All Clear, just now being released.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: 30 Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas / by Alison Macon

Culturally, Austin seems to have it all. The Live Music Capital of the World filled to the brim with nightlife, it also boasts a top notch drama and performing arts community, a reputable visual arts sector, numerous literary competitions, annual international festivals, eclectic cuisine and an abundance of regional and independent news sources tapped into all things cultural. So it's no surprise to find that Austin's already thriving independent film scene has, over the last few decades, steadily emerged into a full-fledged motion picture industry. Now more than ever, and in no small part owing to the far-reaching popularity of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, the city has become (unofficially) the "third coast" movie capital of the United States.
When Tobe Hooper's low-budget horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre burst through to the mainstream in the 1970's, it was only the beginning as the city's progressive film atmosphere began to attract wannabe filmmakers from all over, soon gaining ground as one of the treasured enclave's of independent film. It didn't hurt that the University of Texas Radio-TV-Film program was already one of the best in the country, only to grow in size and become more diversified in the following years. By the 1990's, Austin achieved legitimate notoriety as an unique landmark independent filmmaking trail. Breakthrough directors Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge proved that local and sub-regionally produced films such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, El Mariachi and Office Space could make noise at the national level at the same time that homegrown talented actors like Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger made splashes in Hollywood.  
Lifelong resident and tenured UT film professor Macon chronicles the rise of the Austin's film community through its early days in the 1970's on to its Generation X-charged atmosphere in the late 1980's and early 90's and finally relates how the city has become a major venue for twenty-first century Hollywood blockbusters like Spy Kids. While Austin continues to perpetuate its open-ended, democratic approach to the movie business, Macon hints that their may be a downside to the city's ever-expanding status as a movie and entertainment mecca, namely that rising production costs could mean limited opportunities for local filmmakers as the city opens its arms to industry financiers with bigger pockets. More on the Austin movie scene can be observed at websites like the Austin Film Society's well-informed take on all the cinematic goings-on around the city. (791.4309764 MACOR)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (Aftermath of History) / by Susan Provost Beller

Many associate the Mexican Revolution with the 1910 overthrow of President Porfiro Diaz, the rise of Pancho Villa and the ensuing US intervention. Yet even these pertinent facts fail to tell the full story and relate the subsequent events which established the Mexican Constitution, introduced reforms and indelibly determined the future of the country. In addition to creating directives which redistributed land and wealth between the populous, the Revolution instituted new measures for the separation of church and state, ensured voting rights for all citizens and pushed for equal opportunity education. Much of the 1917 constitution established the current system of government that the country of Mexico has grown accustomed to. The establishment of a Congress of the Union coincided with the allocation of legislative and judiciary bodies at the same time that federal and state constituencies were introduced.
Yet in the years following the revolution, Mexican society was much the same. Despite progressive initiatives toward equanimity and accountability in governmental policies, the balance of power began to shift back to its pre-revolutionary status with wealth and authority disproportionately administered through the upper classes. Many of the same problems of unstable government, political corruption, religious discriminiation and poverty (the most readily apparent by-product of the pre-revolutionary days) continued unabated into the second half of the twentieth century. As the new millenium dawned, much of the ideals fought for in the Revolution as well as the goals allocated by the 1917 constitution remained unfulfilled. Issues of cross-societal inequality and economic disparity are as constant as ever with more recent problems of illegal drug trafficking and border conflicts still unresolved.
Beller outlines the key components of the Mexican Revolution, its initial causes, principle contentions and eventual resolutions, chiefly highlighting the state of affairs following the fighting in this well-detailed, abundantly illustrated and easy-to-understand non fiction book. This volume is one of several in the "Aftermath of History" series, a set of books chronicling some of history's most high profile events and distinguishing the conflict itself from the residual outcomes through the subsequent years. In what is clearly the unique objective of the series, the book is an especially accessible education resource, well-tailored for use by persons of all ages and instrumental in curtailing the implications of such an important period in history. Along with this volume, the library carries another title, The Aftermath of the Anglo-Zulu War (968.4045 WELTIG) in the collection. (972.0816 BELLER)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Man Booker prize announced

Last night the winner of this year's Man Booker prize was announced -- Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. The Man Booker prize is for full-length novels written by citizens of the UK or Ireland. Unlike the most literary prizes in the US, in the UK, the Booker prize is highly scrutinized. Take a look at's article on Why the Booker is the best literary award.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

First published in 1930, this was Roberts’ fourth novel. She was a scholar, poet and school teacher, who wrote this book based on her own ancestors’ journey to Kentucky from Virginia in the years of the American Revolution. Roberts’ writing was well received in her time, but the ensuing years saw a steady decline of interest in her works. Which is a pity, as The Great Meadow is a story of pioneer life that feels immediate and firsthand while also keeping the atmosphere of its time. The story is told in the third person about Diony, an 18-year-old girl who gets married and goes with her new husband Berk to Kentucky. Instead of in a wagon train, their journey is over the mountains on packhorses, fraught with danger of fording rivers, horses bolting or becoming injured, and the ever present threat of Indian attack. Diony is the heroine, and it is her thoughts and desires that are the focus of the story. We slowly understand how people lived and their ways of seeing things through the ordinary give and take of conversation, with their ways of teasing each other and the words and accents used at the time. While a lot of historical novels make you feel that if you were dressed right, you could fit right into another time and century, Roberts makes you see that while you might understand each other’s words (most of them), eons of sensibility divide our time from theirs. It is a meditative book, with Diony having been schooled early on, by her father, in the philosophy that things have no existence without a mind to register their presence. There is a wonderful play on this idea, with the wilderness views Diony sees on her journey described as being prepared for her seeing them, by some mind greater and more far reaching than her own. Although the tone and the philosophical quality of the narrative require more effort of the reader than a present day novel, this effort is richly rewarded, with abundant drama and dazzling depictions of the land that was to be Kentucky.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

Last week, the Nobel Academy announced that it has chosen Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa for its 2010 literature prize. This is the first time a South American writer has been chosen for the prize since 1982, when Gabriel Garcia Marquez won (coincidentally -- and probably completely unrelated -- Llosa once punched Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the nose at a Mexican movie premiere.)

The Nobel Committee stated that it chose Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Like many South American authors, Mario Vargas Llosa is well-known for being politically active. He was an early supporter of Castro's Cuban revolution, but eventually came to disagree with Castro and later in life became known for promoting free market and democratic policies. In the 1990's he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Peru.

Although Vargas Llosa writes in Spanish, many of his works are available in English translation. We currently have 17 of his books, including novels, essays and literary criticism in Spanish and English. If you're interested, stop by the Reference Desk, and we'll be happy to help you find one. If you'd like to know more about the newest Nobel Prize for Literature winner, check out Early Word's Mario Vargas Llosa cheat sheet here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nashville (1975) DVD / a film by Robert Altman; starring Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Shelly Duvall, Lily Tomlin and Keith Carradine

"Y'all take it easy now. This isn't Dallas, it's Nashville! They can't do this to us here in Nashville! Let's show them what we're made of. Come on everybody, sing! Somebody, sing!"
Central to the American heartland is Nashville, home to Music Row, the Grand Ole Opry and numerous characters--musicians, event promoters, press agents, studio managers, etc.--involved with country music. In the summer of 1975, replacement party presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker is campaigning in Nashville, intending to hold a public rally at the city's Parthenon monument. The event, highlighted by the charismatic, buzz-worthy Walker, brings people from far and wide who intermingle with Nashville locals, participate in its festive atmosphere and partake of all it has to offer. Celebrities and semi-celebrities conglomerate to entertain the rally-goers just as lesser-known and unknowns try to get in on the action. Country music legends like Haven Hamilton and Timothy Brown, current starlets Connie White and Barbara Jean along with group acts like folk rock trio Bill, Mary and Tom are the scheduled performers though, to be sure, various wannabe acts will attempt to integrate themselves into the scene. Things may seem a little crazy, a little unfamiliar to the outside eye, but it's sure to be a one of a kind spectacle destined to entertain.
Almost 30 years after its initial release, Nashville, Robert Altman's brilliant slice of Americana, has aged as well as anything. Made during the Vietnam era when Watergate was still fresh in the public's conscious (Nixon's resignation actually spawning the film's concept of a "replacement party" candidate), the film has lost none of its appeal; ironically, it's as relevant today as ever, perhaps more so within the celebrity-obsessed culture we inhabit. A snapshot of a single place and time, Nashville is as much about politics as it is country music, as much focused on families as it is on fame and stardom. It's a black comedy, a musical, a political satire and a documentary all in one, effortlessly and effectively interwoven by Altman into one mesmerizing cinematic production. In another way, Nashville is a character study, a film almost voyeuristically delving into the lives of the individuals within this peculiar cross-section of society. Rather than tell a story in a well-defined, contiguous pattern, scenes jump around from place to place, person to person, loosely interconnecting everything in graduated fashion, a method Altman would similarly adopt in his later films Short Cuts and Gosford Park. This overlapping style (definitely a moldbreaking nuance in those days) fits perfectly with the panoramic view of five days in the city, observing the 20 or so characters--some lifetime locals, some starry-eyed new arrivals and some complete foreigners--who all engross the viewer in clever fashion, capturing the identities of you-know-who-they-really-mean country music stars and other composite figures. Although he tosses aside the conventions of narrative storytelling, Altman allows us to get to know the characters in Nashville better than in many contemporary dramas with fewer characters. By the end the audience thoroughly understands each figure and their place and function within this eccentric though purely American setting--just maybe "the damndest thing you ever saw". (DVD NASHVILL)

4 unconventional novels that you must read (according to Nicole Krauss)

Check out author Nicole Krauss' reading list in the 10-5 edition of The Daily Beast. By the way, if you've never checked out the Beast's book section, it's worth a look, with intelligent but concise recommends and ruminations on books and the book trade from well-known authors and journalists. It's online at Click here for the Nicole Krauss post: Nicole Krauss Picks Her Must Reads

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Matters of Honor / by Louis Begley

American author Louis Begley is perhaps best known for his 1996 novel About Schmidt, a book later adapted into a same titled, Oscar-nominated film starring Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates. Born Ludwik Begleiter in Poland in 1933, Begley survived the deadly World War II genocide of all Polish Jews (he's Jewish) with aid from a compassionate Catholic family who helped hide he and his parents from the Gestapo. After the war, the Begleiters immigrated to America where the family Americanized their name and Ludwik Begleiter officially became Louis Begley. Upon graduating from Harvard, he married and had children, served for a time in the US Army and later went to law school. Despite only beginning his career as a novelist in the early 1990's (when he was in his sixties and still practicing law), Begley has carved out quite a career for himself publishing 8 novels, all well-received. Matters of Honor, Begley's latest published in 2007 is also his most autobiographical observing the relationship of three Harvard University friends in the mid-fifties.
Thrown together as freshman roommates at Harvard in the fall of 1954, Sam Standish, Archibald P. Palmer III ("Archie") and Henry White quickly hit it off, bonding through their mutual affinity for women, alcohol and other 'gentlemanly' pursuits. On their own for what's really the first time, none feel the least bit homesick. Rather each has reason to put some distance between home and school and would rather establish new identities within the collegiate microcosm than dwell on where they came from. Blue-blooded Sam would seem the most prototypical Ivy Leaguer with his New England roots, an established family name, old money wealth and a boarding school upbringing. Yet that's exactly the classification he wants to separate himself as any silver spoon perks he does have are smoke and mirrors. In all honesty, Sam's parents are a public embarassment: his father's a notorious drunk and his slatternly mother's well-known for her parade of casual affairs. If that weren't reason enough to seclude himself from his preppy brethren, there's the fact that he's also adopted--a secret only he, his parents and the family lawyer know about.
As a lifelong military brat, Archie has no real roots other than wherever his father's been stationed and nothing so exceptional for a surname absent the deceptively prestigious roman numeral at the end giving off the suspicion of elite breeding. His easy manners and worldwise nature never find him without friends and, consequently, never without a free drink in his hand or a fun-loving girl on his arm. Diametrically opposite of Sam and Archie is Henry, a New York City native who got into Harvard on full academic scholarship. Despite attending one of the crummiest public high schools in Brooklyn, he's nevertheless among of the smartest, most well-read and hardest-working freshman students around. Henry's no nerdy outsider though. His booksmarts and unfashionable looks don't offset his equally acute knack for adapting and fitting in. Just like the other two though, Henry has his uncomfortable past issues which he'd prefer not to get into: he's Jewish, a Polish immigrant, he hid in a cellar during the Gestapo raids, all extended family apart from he and his parents were gassed, etc. On the surface, Henry's tragic past doesn't seem too encumbering. He's upbeat and on top of things mostly, into girls and good times and happy to be out of earshot of his squawking mother, until the day everything changes bringing the three friends into contact with a daunting truth and a decision which could haunt their lives forever.
Begley knows how to tell a story. Even writing about the holocaust, a genre so top heavy with personalized fiction accounts, the author's ability to peak a reader's interest is remarkable. He writes with a sort of casually sedated style, relaying information about each character with practiced nonchalance. Somehow this gives the story an alarming level of assiduity, the reader keen on all of the subtle moods and motives of the trio of friends who seem like your closest kin (imperfections and all) rather than literary characters. Narrated in past tense by Sam recollects everything from first impressions to girlfriends to nights out on the town as the book moves along at a solid pace, never revealing too much too fast yet offering enough crumbs for the reader to keep the pages turning as the accessible prose slyly allows everyone in to the lives of the three protagonists. (FIC BEGLEY)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Newer Fiction on Ancient Rome

Attila: The Gathering of the Storm / by William Napier
By the fifth century AD, the Roman Empire is on the verge of collapse as multiple armies attack its vulnerable borders, pushing for a permanent dissolution of the realm. The greatest threat posed is a conglomeration of raiders from the East led by a notorious warrior named Attila who has
succeeded in uniting the Hunnish clans with the other
Scythian tribes for one seemingly unstoppable force. (FIC NAPIER)

The Silver Eagle / by Ben Kane
In this sequel to Kane’s riveting novel The Forgotten Legion, Fabiola is a prostitute in the burgeoning Roman Republic. As current mistress to the powerful Decimus Brutus, Fabiola seeks to use her elevated status to influence matters around her and ultimately to see her enslaved brother Romulus, a former legionnaire, returned safely back to Rome. (FIC KANE)

Lavinia / by Ursula K. Le Guin
Lavinia is a prominent maiden and daughter of a king in the peaceful pre-Roman land of Latium. A beautiful woman with many suitors, she also has powers to communicate with the spirit realm. When a ship arrives carrying a man wishing to court her, Lavinia uses her gift of intuition to learn of a destiny which sees her becoming one of the primary founders of the Roman Empire. (FIC LEGUIN)
Conspirata: A Novel Of Ancient Rome / by Robert Harris
In Harris’ riveting sequel to Imperium, things in pre-Imperial Rome are particularly tumultuous. Marcus Cicero is made the pro-consul of the Roman Republic in the year 63 B.C to the anger of several of his rivals. As he maneuvers through the complex political landscape, Cicero must look out for his life as well as his job. (FIC HARRIS)
The Course of Honour / by Lindsey Davis
During the first century of the Roman empire, a slave girl named Caenis is a server in the household of Antonia, then the sister-in-law to Emperor Tiberius. Sparks fly when Caenis meets Vespasian, then an unknown citizen-soldier from one of the rural provinces, and a love affair begins which will witness Vespasian’s legendary rise to power, culminating with his being crowned emperor in 69 A.D.

Persona Non Grata: A Novel of the Roman Empire / by Ruth Downie
Returning back to Rome after a stint with the military in the region of Brittania, physician and part-time sleuth Gaius Ruso arrives home to find his affairs un-customarily in disarray—he’s bankrupt. When a man who owes Ruso money drops dead of poisoning, the doctor is suddenly suspected of the crime and must use every ounce of his investigative abilities to clear his name. (MYS DOWNIE)
Give Me Back My Legions! / by Harry Turtledove
During the reign of Caesar Augustus, Publius Varus is a Roman centurion-statesman who leads three legions north of the Rhine to fight the barbarous Germanic tribes who continue to defy ultimate surrender. On the other side of the battle lines, however, is a very determined Prince Arminius, leader of the subjected Teutonic peoples. Arminius feigns cooperation with the Romans only to plot their down
fall and free his people from their grip in this thrilling alternate history novel. (SF TURTLEDOVE)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Zeroville / by Steve Erickson

Ike Jerome, nicknamed "Vikar", arrives in Hollywood in the summer of 1969 with nothing but an extremely odd tattooo on the back of his bald head. The image shows a silhouetted image of two movie stars: Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in a rendering of a scene from the film A Place in the Sun. As a man haunted by a severely restricted, irregular past and largely unfamiliar with his own identity, Vikar is a curious character even amidst the counterculture of the day. He's a bit edgy too, erratic at times, confrontational and frequently violent (especially when it comes to misunderstandings about his tattoo). He's coherent enough though and at times ironically intellectual, his psyche seemingly held together by a curious mixture of conviction and fascination over his passion in life--the world of the movies.
Vikar is an obsessive, almost possessed devotee to the movies, having only seen his first real film at the age of 16--his rigidly pious, overbearing father disallowing all forms of popular entertainment. He has since become enraptured by all things silver screen; the actors, directors, cinematography, production design, etc. all drawing him almost trance-like back to the the theater, often multiple times in one day. Now in Hollywood, a place Vikar is sure he will find people to share his love for the cinema, he discovers the world around him to be oddly clueless. The hippy landscape on which he's landed is largely disassociated from moviemaking, instead focused more on drugs, sex, music and progressive activism. In addition, it's a culture now targeted by the authorities owing to the recent Manson family murders. Vikar, ever conspicuous with his peculiar appearance and vagrant status living as a tramp in the Hollywood Hills, has even been interrogated on suspicion of his own involvement with the crime even as he's never heard of Charles Manson or his "family"
Zeroville is an exquisite literary experience. Reminiscent of Don Delillo or Thomas Pynchon with its unconventional structure--terse 1 or 2 paragraph chapters and idiosyncratic subject matter--the novel is a refreshing work by a talented writer, equally provocative and entertaining at every turn. The author of award-winning novels like Amnesiac, Arc d'X and The Sea Came in at Midnight, Erickson's work has been described as apocalyptic for its rendering of themes involving dysfunctional societies and isolated characters. Zeroville carries this notion to a new level with a familiar place and time inhabited by quite a unique individual surrounded by a world seemingly on the edge of destruction. (FIC ERICKSON)

Best first lines from books

American Book Review just published their list of 100 best first lines of novels. I found it interesting to see how many of these books I've read -- and how many I haven't read but still know the first line. Do you have any first lines you'd add to this list? Any you'd take off? Check out the list here.