Thursday, December 30, 2010

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read / by Pierre Bayard

"If you don't read one book this year, make this be the one."
Is reading books really so important? If the people who are supposed to read books--scholars, intellectuals and teachers of literature--can't even get around to reading all of the more important works from history, and can't keep up with the thousands more published each year, and can't retain all of what they read anyway, why should average individuals be encouraged to do the same? It probably doesn't matter, unless you're confronted with having to talk about the books in question which you haven't read but are expected to have read. There are a variety of methods to employ when considering this dilemna of which author Pierre Bayard humorously points out in this little book on books. It's chiefly more important to know a book's role than it's key plot points, sentence stylings or verbage. After all, why would you want to read a great book just for its content and not for its context.
Using examples from such writers as Balzac, Dumas, Wilde, Montaigne, Umberto Eco, and even the late Graham Greene, Bayard describes the many varieties of "non-reading" and contextualizing the 'role' of a book that we haven't yet read but either vaguely pricks our memory or conjures up associations with certain themes and ideologies. It may not be the most ethical way of going about your reading list, but it's certainly one of the most pragmatic and admirably honest instruction manuals on how to casually sound like you know what you're talking about. Funny, provocative and most of all very practical, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is in the end a love letter to books, offering a whole new perspective on how we select, read and absorb the books which do or don't cross our paths. This book is one in which, like the books it exposes, doesn't need to be read to really be appreciated--but you may like reading it all the way through just the same if only for the humor. (809 BAYARD)

Trainspotting (DVD) 1996 / a film by Danny Boyle; based on the novel by Irvine Welsh; starring Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly MacDonald, Johnny Lee Miller & Ewan Bremner

"Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"
Mark "Rent Boy" Renton and his friends Spud and Sick Boy are heroin junkies in Edinburgh. For Mark and friends, getting stoned--though they'd never call it that ("People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that . . . which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it.")--is 'the means' and 'the end' of their existence. It constitutes everything about their daily routine; sober individuals are the ones with the abnormal lifestyle as they see it. That each are petty criminals, stealing almost unconsciously to support their habit, goes without saying. And as especially exemplary representatives of their skid row sector of society, they keep company with some of the most degenerate individuals including one guy, Begbie, a ferocious, nearly psychotic hothead, who they admit to being too scared not to hang out with. But though absent of responsibility or maturity, it's not as if Mark or his friends are incapable of normal lives. On the contrary, all are middle class and most come from relatively decent families. Mark himself is intelligent and insightful with two caring parents whose honest attempts at intervention have simply been offset by his own determined efforts at waywardness.
Periodically, they all try to quit the habit, even succeeding for short intervals. After all, nothing's more harshly sobering than when Tommy, another member of their clique and ironically the least addicted of them all, tests positive for HIV and dies. At one point Mark himself walls up permanently inside a one room and, in an obscenely wretched affair in which he's sick constantly and hallucinates frequently, he finally gets clean. He subsequently manages the straight path for a while, landing a job in London where he steers clear of bad influences until his friends locate him with an offer he can't pass up. They've stumbled upon a stash they know they can sell for thousands if they just play their cards right. Of course none of them trust the other now that sobriety has entered their lives and so all bets are off until the transaction is made. But even then, who are they to obey the rules?
Trainspotting is nothing short of brilliant. Wildly popular almost instantaneously upon its release--Welsh's equally successful novel preceded the cinema adaptation by two years--it remains a film of timeless fascination. It's become almost an institution, really. Through the provocative, if countercultural message it communicates, it depicts individuals who go through life's conflicts and challenges simply by refusing to confront them at all. Of course they're also individuals who will likely never make a positive contribution to society. The lives of Renton and his crew (as well as their dream lives) indelibly revolve around getting high, causing trouble, destroying themselves and others and generally going about life the hard way by always taking the easy way out. But Trainspotting avoids extremes: it's not a film to preach the ills of depravity or glorify drug escapism. Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and the stellar cast, McGregor and Carlyle in particular, help ensure that drugs are never celebrated, that the lifestyle's never glamourized or social dissidence never approved of as a viable option to common problems. But neither is a domineering moral code given license to ruin any fun. With enlightening juxtaposition, it manages to show a world which is at the same time deeply disturbing and ironically charming, frighteningly immoral and candidly honest, perfectly practical and manically absurd; at all times a vivid, moving and highly satisfactory right up until the last scene. (DVD TRAINSPO)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Cottagers: A Novel / by Marshall N. Klimasewiski

For 19-year-old Cyrus Collingwood, having to live in East Sooke, Vancouver Island, BC is its own punishment. A year-round resident of this mostly vacation destination, he's always held something of a permanent grudge against the summer people who rent out the neighboring cottages. It's a grudge born of envy of course, and Cyrus can't help his voyeuristic habit of monitoring the lives of the cottagers, noting the various distinguishing habits which mark the weekly renters from the seasonal inhabitants. A bit of of a burglar as well as a peeping tom, Cyrus sees no reason why he shouldn't help himself to a few unguarded possessions his temporary neighbors carelessly leave lying around ("cottagers treated possessions as if they half hoped they might be stolen"). But when a group of five individuals--two couples and a small child--arrive late one summer, there's something a little off about the situation and Cyrus can't help but tugged by the allure of the oddly arranged party, this time not so eager to take advantage of the situation as to become a part of it.
An English Professor on sabbatical, Nicholas has driven his wife Simena and their three-year-old daughter Hilda all the way to East Sooke from New York City for an extended stay in a cottage they've rented out for several months. Coincidentally, their friends Greg and Laurel, also academics, are available and have agreed to join them. Upon arrival, the group finds they're not as chummy as they used to be. Time has changed relationships between everyone, something the spouses already know and something four friends can't hide from each other for long. Cyrus, noticing the odd predicament, crosses his own boundaries this time, steadily insinuating himself personally into the group, feigning genuine friendship and comradery as he intermingles with them and shows them various special parts of his home. But when Nicholas goes missing one late summer evening, suspicions become intermingled with shared animosity among the remaining friends and Cyrus causing a whirlwind of commotion and bad blood to seep in and sieze control of the atmosphere.
The words 'spooky' and 'eerie' come to mind almost upon first glancing at the cover of this fine debut novel by the author who's previous literary efforts have been mostly short fiction and essays. But what makes it even more creepy is how well-realized the characters are. Cyrus is as ordinary as Greg or Nicholas, just bored with an uneventful life which becomes more amusing through observing the lives of others. The themes of privacy and confidentialities between friends are heavily engaged in alternating chapters of Cyrus and then the families showing Cyrus' own inhibitions (or lack there of) and the plaguing difficulties of the cottagers simultaneously, a motif giving the story a solid pacing and suspense driven narrative. At times the writing becomes a bit too introspective and aspects of Cyrus' behavior and antics are a bit overanalyzed. But the book succeeds anyway and is a satisfactory read, craftily interweaving elements of trust, betrayal and identity into a fun read. (FIC KLIMASEW)

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky / by Heidi W. Durrow

The biological daughter of a black American GI stationed in Germany and a Danish mother, Rachel Morse is still a child when she arrives to live with her grandmother and auntie in Portland, OR. She's an orphan now. Her grandmother's become her sole guardian following the disappearance of her father and the tragic death of her mother. They make the best of it though in their modest but happy home. Grandma, Aunt Loretta and Rachel get along well, stick up for one another and face trials as a family. It's just out in the world that things are tricky. Rachel's always known she's different, but its the kids at school who make sure just how much she knows it. A biracial girl with light skin and blue eyes, Rachel's the subject of endless taunts from the other, predominately black classmates. It's other women too, grown women from the community who more subtly make note of Rachel's physical distinctions. Her looks can't hide her vivacious personality and Rachel can't help but treat others with kindness. But just being nice can't turn enemies into friends, especially when fonder attention from male classmates compound her peers animosity and generally confuse the situation further.
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was one of the better breakthrough novels of the year. And it's not hard to see why. It's a brilliant expose on race, identity and conflict, examining the world from a child's eyes but also from the perspective of others involved in the oddly arranged caste system of mixed race individuals. Rachel is a great protagonist, but Durrow does the wise thing by paying close attention to the peripheral characters, even ones removed from the central story who observe many of the same circumstances yet in a different, more subtly reserved light. If the novel has a weakness, it's that it can't hide from the truth, and likewise from conflict. At the beginning all is known is that Rachel's father has abandoned her and that her mother has had a fatal accident. But as the narrative weaves together the missing pieces of just what happened, things become more sinister as the real message of the story deftly comes to the forefront, exploiting a tragic flaw in our society. (FIC DURROW)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) A film by Marc Rothemund, starring Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs and Gerald Alexander Held

In February of 1943, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were arrested by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets at the University of Munich that protested the Nazi regime. What inspired the director to make first a television feature, and then the film, was reading the historical documents he found in the archives of the former East Germany. These were the transcripts of the interrogations of Sophie and her brother and others, who were members of the organization of passive resistance called “The White Rose”.

The screenwriter worked from the transcripts, and the movie follows her and her brother’s quick plunge from activism to arrest for a crime they knew was not to be tolerated. With the transcripts was a letter written to Sophie’s parents by Sophie’s cellmate, who describes Sophie’s last three days in captivity. What is interesting is that the documents should have been destroyed as the Gestapo destroyed all their files at the end of the war. But these happened to be sent to the People’s Court in Berlin, so they survived.

The heart of the film is Sophie’s interrogation by Robert Mohr, who is a staunch Nazi and yet is strongly affected by her testimony, even to the point of first believing in her innocence. Even though we know the film’s outcome, the drama is believably sustained by Julia Jentsch and the other actors, showing the tension between the terror of their situation and their belief in what brought them there. I found myself wondering, why was there no physical torture in the interrogation? But when the law itself upholds evil, perhaps there is no need for it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Portobello: A Novel / by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell could be considered a modern day Agatha Christie. She's that good. Her numerous mystery and crime fiction books, published since the mid-sixties, tally over 60 total novels to go along with several short story collections and novellas. The staggering amount of praise she's received has as much to do with her standalones as with her Inspector Wexford series which has been a TV broadcast since the 1980's. One of her career highlights came in 1998 when she received a life peer award and CBE (Commander of the British Empire) following which she became assumed a seat in the House of Lords for Britain's Labour Party. Portobello, one of her most recent standalones, chronicles the intersecting lives of several city dwellers in the Notting Hill section of London.
50-year-old bachelor Eugene Wren is the sort of person who's lucked into the good life. An art dealer and owner of a shop in the antiques market of London's Portobello Road, Wren's made a series of favorable deals in which some wealthy collectors overpaid for several obscure pieces. Now he lives semi-retired in a posh section of Kensington where he casually monitors his shop's business and spends most of his time with his girlfriend and fiance Ella Cotswold. A doctor of general medicine, Ella's not only well-off financially but ten years his junior and quite a catch. There's a slight problem though: Eugene's an addictive personality type. Never fully free of a dependency, he's gone through life fighting alcohol, cigarettes, prescription drugs and food, essentially trading one addiction for another periodically. Currently he's hooked on a particular brand of sugar-free sweets which he takes great pains to hoard, purchasing the candy at different stores and concealing all traces from his soon-to-be wife who can't stand hidden habits.
One day Eugene stumbles across an envelope overflowing with cash just lying in the street. In an attempt to partly offset the guilt over his addiction and balance the scales of his conscience a bit, Eugene tries to personally locate envelope's rightful owner, publishing a notice in the paper in hopes of getting his man. Of course multiple persons try and claim the money. One of the phantom claimants, Lance Platt, is a burglar and petty thief who constantly prowls around the neighborhood, lurking amid the upper-class homes seeking to potentially rob any of the less secure ones. This time though, Lance meets with Eugene not to check out his house, but because he actually needs the money: his girlfriend's got a busted jaw after he'd smashed it with his fist and she needs a thousand pounds for surgery. The other notably odd respondent is a peculiar invalid named Joel Rosemund, who may or may not have a mental illness (he hears voices) and who latches on to Ella as his personal physician. It's not long before the situation initialized by Eugene's little discovery spins out of control as the secrets and lies get knotted up into a sinister web of betrayal and intrigue.
Portobello is a great 'neighborhood' novel and the borough of Notting Hill is as good a place as any to set a story. For anyone who doesn't know about Notting Hill or the Portobello Road Market, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a good movie to rewatch. Thriving with culture, rich in tradition and full of colorful characers, it more than measures up as a backdrop for Rendell's exquisite prose. And the writing is just that. Smart, fluid, funny--it's everything even a non-mystery fan could want. The characterizations are especially charming. The author's portrayal of her characters is as comprehensive as it is fascinating, the narrative fleshing out each's finer points, their psychological makeup and chronic neurosis, personal convictions and internal inhibitions. The evocative depictions of Eugene, his psyche and motives; of Lance and his ever-deepening well of problems; and Joel, who may seem the most out of touch but has a knack for getting what he wants, are what combine to make Rendell one of the truly special contemporary mystery authors. (MYS RENDELL)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Faith of Graffiti / w/ Words by Norman Mailer & Photographs by Jon Naar

"No, in the environment of the slum, the courage to display yourself is your only capital, and crime is the productive process which converts such capital to the modern powers of the world, ego and money" (p. 31)
New York City in the mid-seventies was an dirty, ugly place. By 1973, financial woes had brought on a full-blown recession and removed any doubt from an already disenchanted population of a well-founded American dream. Plummeting economic stability stagnated employment and skyrocketed the crime rate. The drug trade thrived, vice proliferated and poverty rose all while crooked politics derailed badly needed reforms. Many thought it was the end for the Big Apple, once a harbor of hope for the newly arrived now a cesspool of filth and corruption seemingly gone to pot. Aesthetically, as civically, the city was an eyesore of eyesores. Trash in the streets and crumbling brownstones seemed to spell the atmosphere of moral ruin and decay; largely dilapidated structures attracted garbage, grime and graffiti (more than usual) to accommodate the increasingly more prevalent world of sleaze and pornography. .
Witnessing the then plight of his hometown, author Norman Mailer, rather than look upon the scene with disdain, embraced the spectacle with an artist's eye, noticing the ingenuity of street art as an outlet for creativity rather than misdemeanor vandalism reserved for petty criminals. Accompanied by Jon Naar, a photographer who shot all of the graffito-tagged public property from street scenes to the subways, back alleys to freeway ramps, and aside countless buses and buildings around town, the writer/artist team gave a voice to birth of the street art movement in New York City. Years later their effort stands as an almost idyllic testament to a troubled and changing society which would witness a resurgence and urban renewal only decades later.
Graffiti is seen for what it is (defacement of public property) and what it's not (wanton criminality absent of meaning). Modern culture invariably pins it as the former, as vandalism, and rightly so. But for so many living in the ghettos and slums of the world, graffiti is "a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have an identity". (p. 30). How ironic then that legally authorized street art would become prominent in the following years. First printed in 1973, resulting body of work is nothing grandiose, catching only a glimpse glance of what is no doubt one the largest and most universal of artistic mediums. Yet it's a powerful account of an iconic (if controversial) ensemble collection of art now largely forgotten by the culture. (751.73 NAAR)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Cellist of Saravejo by Steven Galloway

Steven Galloway is a Canadian writer whose third book, "The Cellist of Saravejo", has become an international best seller, not without some controversy. While the setting of the book is clearly portrayed as being Saravejo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the author assures us in a preface, that “this is above all else a work of fiction.” Galloway, however, does want to connect readers with the historic siege of Sarajevo, which took place from 1992 to 1996. During the Bosnian war, Sarajevo was targeted by the Serbian army, who feared encroachment and domination by Croats, the other primary nationality living in that region. The Serbian forces rained down death and destruction on Sarajevo, effectively blocking the city and exposing inhabitants to starvation and disease, as well as inflicting rape and torture.

There have been atrocities on all sides in the Balkan conflict, but the Serbian nationalist profile is one that emerges as the most horrendous, as witness their leaders now being tried in The Hague for war crimes. Galloway describes the lives of four city residents in prose that is precise and meant to be impersonal, giving us a birds-eye view of each person’s reflections and how they adapt to survive. Galloway takes pains to show how each person struggles with living in a war. His characters find themselves losing compassion, direction, and hope. Then an act of bravery, charity, or love revives them, and they remember who they are and why they should care about other people. The main action that inspires them in this book is a cellist who plays in the street, mourning the victims.

What is interesting is that the cellist of Sarajevo was a real person, Vedran Smailovic, who is now living in Ireland. He is outraged by Galloway’s use of his character as the symbol for hope in his book. The cellist in the book plays every day for 22 days (at the same time) as a tribute to 22 people killed while standing in line for bread. Smailovic says that he played for two years, not just 22 days, and was not so stupid not to vary his times playing, to make a harder target for the snipers.

Galloway does not explore the racial hatred in Bosnia and Herzegovina, preferring to emphasize our common humanity. But this idealizing of life without war wears somewhat thin as the novel goes on. War is never simple, yet Galloway tries to make it so, by stripping characters of their racial identity and assuming that to kill anyone is just a mistake that people fall into. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" uses historical events as the impetus behind its story, but, in my view, fails to illuminate them.

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater / by Frank Bruni

For Frank Bruni, eating has always been a labor of love. Food has been his best friend and at times his worst enemy. The product of second generation Italian Americans for whom food was a no nonsense affair, Bruni never had the chance to miss any meals much less pass on any of his family's delicious culinary delights. So it's little surprise that the lighthearted journalist's lifelong love affair with food has led to a chronic weight problem and, subsequently, a perpetual struggle against obesity. And it has been a struggle. All throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood Bruni has been ever-conscious of his weight as a detractor to his self-esteem and well-being. "I wore pants with a waist size two to three inches greater than his, and I sometimes had to be taken to the husky section of boys’ departments to find them. Husky: I knew that wasn’t a good thing, a flattering thing. Other kids made sure of that." (p. 37).
Bruni has fought anorexia and bulimia, has had many an episode with binge eating and subsequent purging, has gone through every fad diet imaginable, abused laxatives and diet pills, devoted countless hours of his life to exercise and starved himself relentlessly. Nothing seemed to work, until he finally found a way to both accept his condition as, well, round and uniquely modify it to his lifestyle. A former political correspondent during the Bush/Gore election, Bruni parlayed his journalistic skills into a gig with the New York Times where he combined his love of eating and culinary expertise into a position as a food critic. It was the right fit. Bruni found "closure" about his obsessive eating and issues with weight control, resolving to live within himself and as himselrf n effect, his obsession with food was the very thing that ultimately liberated him. Bruni is as honest as he is accurate about his own neverending struggle with weight gain and eating, chronicling his issues ever since early, early childhood, his rising weight all through his pre-teen years whereupon it shaped his identity, essentially the backbone of his conscious. Many, many readers can identify with Bruni and his style is easy to catch on to in this above average memoir. (FIC BRUNI)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday Inspirational Fiction

Unwrapping Christmas / by Lori Copeland
Mom and church activist Rose just loves the philanthropy aspect of Christmas. A true believer in doing all she can to help the less fortunate, Rose has worked herself silly this holiday season so much that she's currently rather dissatisfied when some of her programs don’t go according plan. Suddenly, as Rose finds herself straining to get things done, the real spirit of Christmas becomes muddled amid all the hustle and bustle. (FIC COPELAND)

The Memory Quilt: A Christmas Story For Our Times / by T.D. Jakes
Recently widowed Lela Edwards is not looking forward to a Christmas which she’ll almost certainly be spending alone. Dissatisfied with her family’s inability to reconnect for the holidays and pay homage to their time-honored tradition of the family quilt, Lena joins a women’s Bible Study group at her local Chicago church to help her through the difficult time. (FIC JAKES)
An Amish Christmas: A Novel / by Cynthia Keller
Meg Hobart is a homemaker living in Charlotte, NC with her loving successful husband and two wonderful children when it all implodes after her husband betrays her trust and the family is plunged into poverty. But a strange twist lands the family in the home of an Amish family in Pennsylvania for Christmas where Meg Learns a valuable lesson about life, love, happiness and true prosperity. (FIC KELLER)

The Christmas Candle / by Max Lucado
In a simpler time in the cozy English country village of Gladstone, one very exceptional event occurs every 25 years on Christmas Eve. On this night a mysterious stranger—an angel—appears to light a candle in the home of the local candle maker. The family then gives the candle to someone in need. The person on the receiving end always experiences a miracle (FIC LUCADO)

Christmas in Cedar Cove / by Debbie Macomber
Cedar Cove, WA is one place where you can be sure that folks know how to celebrate Christmas the right way. In this cozy corner of the world, simpler things such as spending time with family and rehashing stories from past Christmases are solid traditions, traditions always sure to go great with the delicious mug of locally mulled apple cider. (FIC MACOMBER)

Zanna’s Gift: A Life In Christmases / by Scott Richards
The Pullman family is devastated when they lose their eldest son Ernie to a terminal illness one Christmas. 4-year-old Suzanna, the family’s youngest child, had a particularly special bond with her big brother—it seems that she drew pictures only Ernie could see. The last picture she drew, named “the gift”, was presented to Ernie on his deathbed and is something which bonds the entire family together in a most unexpected way throughout the following years. (FIC RICHARDS)

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Petting Zoo / by Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll is best remembered for his 1978 autobiographical memoir The Basketball Diaries chronicling his life as a teenage junkie on the streets of New York City. The book caused something of a ruckus when the 1993 film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg came under heavy scrutiny for its drug content and extreme violence. A particular scene in which DiCaprio as Carroll hallucinates about murdering his classmates was reviled in the wake of the Columbine Massacre for its uncanny familiarity to the actual school shooting. Lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims' families claimed the scene inspired the two perpetrators in their methodology. The Petting Zoo, published earlier this year only months after the author's death from a heart attack, is a smart and vivid examination of a New York City artist beset by some serious mental problems.

In New York City in the 1980's, Billy Wolfram is a hot young painter making his reputation through some startlingly provocative (and lucrative) post-modern creations. Not unlike many successful artists, Billy is a bit odd and at times seemingly out of touch with his surroundings. His eccentricities even suggest a creeping mental illness though most of his clique of groupies don't percieve it as much of a cause for concern. But when his growing obsessiveness and spacy episodes reach a crescendo, Billy has a nervous breakdown. It's more a psychotic episode really, a fit of insanity so severe that it lands a rambling Billy on the streets of the city and ultimately in to Central Park's petting zoo where his fondling of the animals arouses suspicion. His odd behaviour incites enough of a scene that authorities soon apprehend him and, after questioning, facilitate his admission in to a mental hospital.
The doctors tell him it's nothing too serious. They think Billy's condition is little more than a routine obsessive/compulsive disorder and release him with some medication after a short stay. Returning to his apartment, Billy holes up alone for an indefinite period of time and, so that he won't be disturbed, fires everyone who works for him save for his personal assistant Marta. His only "real" companion during this time is a raven he'd spotted previously at the petting zoo who oddly chooses Billy's balcony to light on. After a few weeks of this type of seclusion, aided by several lengthy discourses with the raven and a few less-welcoming visits from Marta, Billy begins his descent into full-blown madness. But as his grip on reality begins to loosen, bits and pieces about his past are slowly illuminated, unraveling an oddly enlightening backstory into the life and mind of this curious yet unique individual.
Carroll's last book shouldn't have been his last. At times it delivers some of the most curiously profound insights you'll come across in modern literature, containing the self-reflections of a mad man who's madness may be his undoing but is also an antecedent for his artwork and, subsequently, his livelihood. Billy is a great muse for Carroll, an author whose own psychological problems and vices inherently gave him a voice. And though there's no great lessons learned throughout, subtle truths and nuances deepen the intrigue and flesh out the character. Through Billy's discussions with the raven, a product of his delirium who speaks with the protagonist as if the pair were old friends in a cafe, we learn about the character's disturbing childhood, the death of his mother, and a certain deeply traumatic event which onset his mental instability. Of course it sparked his creative vision as well and, in retrospect, set him up for both professional success and private failure. 'Petting Zoo' is a worthwhile read. At times funny, at times sad, it's interesting if only for its characterization of the often complementary relationship between mental illness and art. (FIC CARROLL)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America--and Spawned a Global Crisis / by Michael W. Hudson

When the Lehman Brothers holding corporation declared a Chapter 11 on September 15, 2008, it caused more than just a blip on the radar. With the abrupt implosion of this company and, soon afterwards, other subprime mortgage lenders along with the bankruptcy of several other well-known Wall Street firms, the world witnessed a financial disaster rarely glimpsed in history. The crisis cost over $20 trillion in government fiscal aid, caused millions of people to lose their jobs, millions more to lose their homes and nearly incited an all out financial collapse of US and International markets. It's after effects would linger for two years and its reverberations are still being felt. Through exhaustive research and extensive interviews with financial insiders, politicians, academics and even former Wall Street "hitmen", veteran financial reporter Michael Hudson reveals the story of the rise and fall of the subprime mortgage business by chronicling the plight of its two most powerful conglomerates: Ameriquest and Lehman Brothers.
The situation was as preventable as it was lamentable. As the biggest subprime lenders, Ameriquest and Lehman had the most control and the most power; and, subsequently, the most to lose. It was these two companies which, more than any other institutions, instigated the cesspool of corruption by cultivating a toxically unethical environment involving predatory lending policies, high risk home loans and shady backdoor banking practices, to say nothing of the hard-living, vice-loving expensive after hours habits of many employees. Risky home loans created high-profile housing markets but also made for an escalating insecure lending system between investment banks, mortgage companies and credit rating bureaus. Soon this housing bubble led to a destabilized banking structure which taxed its parent holding companies to the point of liquidation and eventually took its toll on the US economy, which ultimately had to be rescued by a hefty government bailout in 2008. Though a complex problem with complicated aspects, the book is an entertaining read highlighted by a thoroughly putrid cast of characters of which many victims of the crisis have come to loathe. Provocative and gripping, The Monster is a searing exposé of the fraud, corruption and greed that fueled the financial collapse of which the country and the world is only now climbing its way out of. (332.63 HUDSON)

The Butterfly Effect: How Your Life Matters / by Andy Andrews

"Every single thing you do matters. You have been created as one of a kind. You have been created in order to make a difference. You have within you the power to change the world."
Among the less heralded heroes of the Civil War was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor with no prior military experience who rose through the ranks of the Union army ultimately making Brigadier General by the war's end. At the Battle of Gettysburg, the then Colonel Chamberlain did one of the most daring (some would say stupid) things any commanding officer could ever do: he ordered a charge of his infantry unit--dwindled down to only 80 men and all out of ammunition excepting their bayonets--down from their elevated post towards the oncoming Confederate brigade of well over 400 men, all armed with adequate ammunition. The gamble paid off. Chamberlain and his men were able to hinge in the Confederates, capturing a multitude of troops and securing the strategic high ground known as Little Round Top. Historians have pinned Chamberlain's charge as the critical juncture in the battle which turned the tide in favor of the Union army who ultimately won the Civil War, preserved the United States as a nation (not a conglomeration of federated states like Europe which it is speculated that America would have become had the South won) and aided in establishing the "America" of today. Chamberlain's charge changed the course of American and, in effect, world history, making him one of the most recognizable cases of one rather ordinary individual altering the course of human events.
Most people are familiar with the theory of the Butterfly Effect in which a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia can indelibly alter the shifts in wind currents thousands of miles away so much so that a hurricane is started in Africa. For some, this has been translated to mean that the smallest human actions can have the largest impact on mankind. Andy Andrews certainly thinks so. The author and motivational speaker was once homeless, living on the streets in various towns along the Gulf Coast at his lowest point. In the last twenty years, he's transformed his poverty into prosperity, inspired numerous people struggling through hard times and been featured on various media outlets throughout the country. In addition to charming stories like the one above involving General Chamberlain, Andrews latest inspirational book includes other anecdotes on individuals who've made a difference simply by taking a stand for what's right and acting as opposed to doing nothing in times of crisis. Actions matter is what Andrews tries to get across in this very tiny book which could probably be read in one 15-20 minute sitting. What you do matters so much so that sometimes it can alter the course of history. (158.1 ANDREWS)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2666 / by Roberto Bolano; trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

The son of a truck driver, Roberto Bolano was born in Chile in 1953 but moved with his family to Mexico City when he was still a child. After dropping out of school in his teen years, Roberto became heavily involved with the ongoing revolutionary movements in Central and South America. In 1973 he even
traveled back to Chile to give his support to the Salvador Allende regime (ironically the uncle of the other renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende) only to eventually be taken prisoner and held captive for several months. Afterwards, Bolano lived the life of a semi-vagabond for a time, residing in Spain, El Salvador, Mexico and France among other places before trying his luck as a writer, primarily as poet in his early career before turning to fiction full time. His novel 2666, published just after his death in 2003 from Hepatitis C, has been described as "an exceptionally exciting literary labyrinth" and  "the first great book of the twenty-first century".

In the border city of Santa Teresa, Mexico, there has been an ongoing series of serial murders of young women since 1993. The local law enforcement estimates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 300-400 homicides have occurred though local residents estimate the count significantly above that. "Los Feminicidios", as the victims have come to be called, are mostly poor, uneducated and nondescript females ranging in age from 15-36. Though a series of suspects and criminal trials have come and gone, few viable leads and hard evidence have come to light as the wave of brutal killings have continued unabated, the police seemingly as useless at preventing crime as they are at a loss for answers to solve them. Among the residents of the city, the murders are perpetually in the public conscious. Everyone is on edge, wary of their surroundings, going about their lives in grim, foreboding fashion under constant fear for themselves and their loved ones. Even outsiders new to Santa Teresa can't help but be engulfed in the distinct air of menace and fear which grip the streets.
All the while amid the surroundings saturated with anxiety and unease, odd contradictions and unlikely connections permeate the scene. A sophisticated set of European literary critics has gathered in Santa Teresa to be near the obscure German poet Benno von Archimboldi, a man himself well-associated with violence and murder and of who it is said is in the city for some peculiar reason associated with the "Los Feminicidios". Coincidentally, the critics and Archimboldi are colleagues of one Oscar Amilfitano, a professor at the local university who fears for his own daughter's life, she being "of the age" for targeted victims. Within the same circle of these foreigners and fringe intellectual types is Oscar Fate, an American journalist representing an NYC-based lifestyle magazine, who's in town to cover a high profile boxing match even as he knows nothing about the sport. Instead of covering the fighters he's supposed to be interviewing, Fate becomes interested in the murders and promptly starts his own investigation into the case, targeting the high concentration of women murdered between the years of 1993 and 1997.
Up front there are three things the reader should know about this book: Santa Teresa is a fictional equivalent of Cuidad Juarez, the murders are real and based on fact, and the title '2666' is relatively meaningless (the number itself is a vague allusion to the Biblical book of Exodus but never mentioned in the text). An epochal tale centering on the ongoing series of very brutal crimes, it's a novel not so much concerned with violence and death--no one would mistake it for crime or mystery fiction--as it is a diatribe subtly hinting at the sinister world in which we inhabit. There's something very secret and very horrible centered around the desert city of Santa Teresa and, conversely, Cuidad Juarez, a place perhaps as reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah as anywhere. Evil is as much a reality as eating and drinking. And not just a commonplace criminal element, but a distinct brand of extreme violence and vulgar bloodlust which define the setting and accommodate Bolano's savory, emanating style. Further enhancing the book's almost mystical resonance is the author's death in 2003 coinciding with the novel's publication that same year--the tome (and it is a 'tome', over 900 pages long) sort of his magnum opus and a labor of love which the publisher took great care to leave fully intact. But unlike the themes of death and mortality which so wrap themselves around the book and its author, there are no real resolutions established in the narrative of the story. No defining moments or revelations are reached as the mysteries remain unsolved and largely unapproachable in their complexity, vastness and overwhelming tragedy. The mood is almost sublimated to match the atmosphere as things remain strange and unpredictable, an element of Bolano's which compounds the surreal, provocative quality of this intensely superior work. (FIC BOLANO)

Black Swan Green / by David Mitchell

Born in Southport in 1969 but raised in the Worcestershire countryside, English author David Mitchell has traveled the world, living in places such as Sicily, Japan and South Africa before ultimately laying down roots in Ireland where he's lived ever since. Two of his first three novels were shortlisted for the Man Booker Award and his most recent, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, made this year's list. His 2007 novel Black Swan Green is a reflection of his own childhood in rural England, his 13th year specifically, where family turmoil, peer approval and girl trouble are all a part of growing up.

Jason Taylor is 13 in 1982. And though his life in a small-town in England is unexciting from the outside looking in, there's certainly nothing mundane about his own daily personal drama. As an adolescent, Jason is involved with the treacherous game of finding out who his friends are, picking his way through the thorny world of peer approval and teen politics. Making things difficult is his speech impediment ("stammering") which tends mark him as a walking target whenever there's a large group of people around. Jason's smart though. He knows the score and gives as well as he gets most of the time. Meanwhile his parents have been fighting a lot lately, and it's increasingly becoming apparent to Jason that a divorce or at least a separation looms as the months pass by and the tension builds between his increasingly preoccupied father and stressed out mother. Things are not all bad. Strange as it may seem, Jason's found himself in the frequent company of classmate Dawn Madden, a popular girl who for some reason likes to hang out with Jason and his friends. But if he's sure of anything, it's that whatever he feels sure of one moment likely won't last long.
Thirteen chapters intricately describe thirteen episodes in the protagonist's life in this starkly revealing book which rings achingly true to life. And while each chapter stands on its own, effectively as its own independent creation, it won't take the reader long to perceive the interconnectedness of each event as Mitchell skillfully threads each of the various, often seemingly tangential strands of the story, interweaving bits and pieces from what no doubt his own well-recollected though not so idyllic as one might assume young adulthood. There's a reason this is not a YA book. And it's not just the frequently indecipherable British slang. Nothing is very optimistic or even frivolous about Mitchell's prose as he subjects his protagonist to life's harsher elements, highlighting an overwhelming proportion of adolescence's more discomforting episodes. Even as Jason's a plucky, resilient character with much to preoccupy him outside of the negative sphere, it's still no fun to experience his world of very ordinary, but strikingly lucid pain and sorrow. Historical anecdotes and pop culture references like the Cold War and British invasion of the Falklands are well tied in to things and even subtle hints of the budding computer age creep on to the stage. But even the nostalgia of say 80's music or movies like Superman or Star Wars can't deviate from the author's painfully somber narrative which pulls no punches and most definitely refuses to shy away from life's crueler, more prevalent side which spares no one no matter what age. (FIC MITCHELL)

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Translator: a tribesman’s memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari as told to Dennis Michael Burke and Megan M. McKenna

Hari grew up in a village in Darfur. He was sent to the nearest town to live with relatives and continue his schooling. Although his family wanted him to return and become a camel herder as the other villagers, he decided to travel first. After working in Libya, he went to Egypt and then made the mistake to try to enter Israel, where he heard there were good paying jobs. Hari was caught and landed in an Egyptian prison. With the luck of a kind jailor and friends outside, he was able to get out and travel back to Darfur.

Unfortunately, this was 2003 and the region was in turmoil. He came back to his village only in time to see it being attacked by the paramilitary Janjaweed, used by the Sudanese government to strike terror into the hearts of non-Arab civilians. His brother killed and the village destroyed, Hari makes his way toward Chad, where the refugees are headed. Once there, the atrocities he has witnessed make him want one thing only, to help reporters and other outsiders record the carnage. As he says, “I was feeling mostly dead inside and wanted only to make my remaining days count for something.” He ends up acting as a translator for journalists, risking his life with theirs to document the genocide.

In all the books about Darfur, this book stands out for the depth and warmth Hari conveys through his conversations with the two writers. The writers manage to preserve the sense of Hari’s conviction and purpose, which comes across all the more strongly in contrast to the brutal randomness of the events he describes. His bravery, and the bravery of the journalists he works for, serve as testimony to what such resolve can accomplish.