Monday, January 31, 2011

The Prodigal God: Recovering The Heart of the Christian Faith / by Tim Keller

Most people are acquainted in some way with the parable of the prodigal son. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ speaks before a gathering pharisees and tax collectors (called "sinners") about a man with two sons. The younger son, preferring not to wait until he's come of age, asks his father to bequeath him his inheritance on the spot. "Father, give me my share of the estate", he says at which point the father divides his property between the two boys. The younger son then sets out for a "far country" where he squanders his inheritance in "wild living". All his money gone, he hires himself out to a local farmer who sends him out to live among the pigs. (It's commonly thought that he actually ate the slop given the pigs, but this is a misconception. "He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything." (Luke 16:15 NIV)).
At last the younger son, at his lowest end, decides to return home with the intention to work as a hired man for his father. "So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion . . . " (Lk. 16:20 NIV).  Without a word regarding the son's past, the father welcomes him back with open arms, weeping with joy at the boy's return. The fattened calf is killed and a feast is prepared as all of the household, servants included, celebrate the reconnection of father and son. But not everyone is happy. The older son who has, up to now, been largely absent from the narrative, is appalled at the readily forgiving manner his father has received his younger son who's defamed the family name by throwing his money away on prostitutes. He refuses to celebrate with the family and demands an explanation for why his brother has not been held accountable. The parable concludes with the father's gentle reply: "'My son', the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" (Lk. 15:30-31 NIV).
The story is one of the longest and most detailed of Jesus' parables and likewise one of the most misunderstood. Most if not all interpretations are concentrated on the eager flight and penitent return of the younger "prodigal" son. But this misses a key message of the story because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way of being alienated from God. To overemphasize the waywardness of the younger son is to neglect a crucial facet of the parable--the indignant pride of the older brother. At the time, this aspect of the story was intended as a direct indictment of the smug, self-righteous pharisees and their moralizing exclusion of those whom they felt didn't measure up to the restrictions laid down by Mosaic Law. Their sin, that of pride and their contempt of their "brother", was as grave and even graver than the lawlessness associated with more overtly sinful behavior. Tim Keller does a good job explaining it all. In simple fashion yet with an intellectual's keen insight, Keller manages to curtail some of the major dogmatic issues in Christian doctrine. In his little book (only about 100 pages), he dissects Jesus' most familiar parable and in the process redefines the conditions of both "sin" and "lostness", revealing the essential message of the gospel of grace and redemption. In everyone are both lost sons. Each individual possesses characteristics associated with the older and younger brother, and yet grace is offered freely to both the legalistic and the irreligious. Something the author expresses with unique clarity and soundness of mind. (226.806 KELLER)

John Dies At The End / by David Wong

Dave is an average guy who's been experiencing some unusual events of late. He's able to trace his odd behavior and frequent lapses in time back to a party in which his friend John and his band "Three Armed Sally" had a gig. It was here that Dave was introduced to a new drug called "soy sauce" which began him seeing and sensing some pretty wacked out phenomenon like certain impossible phone calls from dead people. Dave thinks it's just a bad trip until he and John find out a little more about the "soy sauce" in question. It seems that the mysterious substance actually "chooses" its takers rather than the other way around, imbuing them with the eerily unnatural ability to decipher the goings on in other parallel dimensions. In short, the drug can show them new, yet similar worlds yet unknown to them while also unveiling their own conceptual reality in strikingly new and unfamiliar ways. There's a serious problem though. An evil presence associated with this alternate dimensional realm desires access to the real world, hence its 'targeting' of certain test subjects (e.g., Dave and John). "The Evil", as it's called, will stop at nothing to gain entry into the world of the living and Dave and John may be the only thing which can prevent it from doing just that.
Part a Lovecraftian horror, part William S. Borroughs and even a snippet of Stephen King-esque macabre are thrown in to this craftily conceived tale of alternate dimensions. Wong is something special and as a result has created quite a cult following with his fiction which was mostly restricted to online material for quite a while. It was actually a webserial promoted online by the author before a publisher saw the story and snapped up the copyright. It's a book which manages to be both funny and scary simultaneously, darkly comedic and yet fairly sinister in its approach. As a novel, it's solid enough to appeal to Sci-Fi/Horror buffs and yet generate appeal among mainstream fiction readers. Nothing from any specific genre really fits the book. The story is one which conceives the inconceivable, pointing out things few people (even ones in not-quite-their-right mind ;-) could have ever imagined. A movie version starring Paul Giamatti and Clancy Brown directed by Don Coscarelli is in the works and due out sometime this year. (SF WONG)

Red Hook Road: A Novel / by Ayelet Waldman

It's the perfect day for a wedding. With the Maine summer sun shining down on a beautiful young couple, it seems a promising start to a new union between two people--John Tetherly and Becca Copaken--and two families who've known each other a while, though not always as intimate friends. The Copakens are New Yorkers who've owned a roomy vacation home in the small town of East Red Hook for over a century. Mother Iris Copaken even insists that since they've summered in East Red Hook every year since 1879 they have just as much right to be considered locals as the year-rounders. Not everyone agrees with this theory though. John's mother Jane Tetherly is the hard-edged manager of a maid service which the Copakens employ. She considers herself a true Mainer and doesn't much care for her oldest son marrying a "from awayer". But she also understands that her oldest son John genuinely loves his new bride and though she prefers not to admit it, that Becca really loves John.
Then just after the wedding the unthinkable happens: the limousine carrying the newlyweds is involved in a fatal accident killing all passengers instantly. Suddenly everything changes between the two families, particularly for mothers Jane and Iris who quickly reacquaint themselves with the social differences separating them. Over the next few years, the women work through their grief and sorrow, experiencing all of the pain, anger and deep-seated resentment which the accident has caused. But with their loss comes the opportunity for new beginnings like the odd compatibility forged between other members of the respective clans. Specifically it's the bond born of mutual bereavement between younger siblings Matt Tetherly and Ruthie Copaken who transform their sadness into a solid friendship and a budding romance. It's also the oddly fascinating rejuvenation of Iris' father Isaac, a forgotten master violinist, who takes on the task of tutoring one of the Tetherley nieces, a dormant music prodigy in her own right. With time all begin to redress the wounds suffered in the midst of such a horrible tragedy.
Mystery author Waldman's follow-up to her fiction debut Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is worthy of the positive reviews of its predecessor and then some. Reminiscent of other New England domestic fiction writers like Anita Shreve, Barbara Delinsky or Anna Quindlen, this is an engaging story in which friction between in-laws is generally a guarantee and more internal family problems are never completely put to rest. And though writing about culture clashes between "summer people" and "the help" is nothing new, it never seems to get old either, especially if the story rings true. In this case it's the unique but believable plot device of a marriage between two opposing families where tragedy leaves everyone at a loss for how to deal with such a catastrophe. In practical and not overly-sensationalized fashion, Waldman gets to the heart of the matter, carefully avoiding any hasty judgments or over-dramatized flare-ups and seeing the tragedy through with uncommon bonds formed between opposing characters in charmingly practical ways. (FIC WALDMAN)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Amarcord (DVD) 1973 / a film by Frederico Fellini; starring Bruno Zanin, Armando Brancia & Magali Noel

In the Italian coastal village of Borgo, schoolboys play in the streets of the square, snatching at puffballs which float in the air. In the barbershop Gradisca, the town beauty, prances around in her fancy clothes doing her best to visually engage the leering male audience. As evening nears in the village square, a blind accordion player peddles for petty change while Volpina the prostitute, another of the town's pathetic down-and-outers, vamps about in the shadows. 12-year-old Titta Biondi observes it all from beginning to end--all of the bawdy shenanigans, the simple mundane patterns and sad but curious spectacles which are always on parade in his little corner of the world. It is the 1930's and the age of Fascism in Italy where the government has pledged to revive the country's prestige through strict authoritarianism and collectivist slogans. But despite the seeming enthusiasm with which directives of the regime are undertaken, the movement accomplishes little aside from providing a few small-minded men with the chance to wear stuffy-looking uniforms. The few Borgo residents who are wealthy or powerful enough to care about politics try to follow suit. They've been instructed to root out any signs of anarchy and so they do their best to follow-up on any petty squabbles or tomfoolery, even if it's merely a phonograph recording of an anarchist melody. For Titta and his family, nothing really changes. Titta still gets in trouble, his father is still easily angered, always griping at his wife. As a year passes and the seasons change, their simple lives remain much the same as the generations before them. But it's a sameness in which the magic of everyday is sharply revealed.
Amarcord, loosely translated as "I remember", is just that--a life's journey brought to the screen. With Fellini, one can always expect a world of quasi-fantasy mixed with archetypal images from the mind's eye. Yet Amarcord might be the director's most indelible portrait of just what that vision embodies: a starkly personal and illuminating ode to his youth and memory. Nothing compares with the beauty of Fellini's imagery; he is a master of aesthetic exposition. A peacock in the middle of the snow, the tragic splendor of a deserted seaside hotel, even the colorful procession of the new prostitutes arriving at the local brothel all absorb the viewer's senses, each a mesmerizing portrait of artistic clarity. With Amarcord, a true pinnacle of Italian art film, Fellini encapsulates his deepest convictions, exploring the subtle if contradictory truths behind memory, experience and conscious awareness. And though the content can seem perplexing and distant, the narrative at times enigmatic and confusing, the central concept remains grounded as one in which a profound insight can be expressed through the simplest of actions. Life is renewed daily, even instantaneously in Fellini's world. But just as life continues, its composition changed, even altered forever at times, memories are always being preserved in the most incandescent of ways--at times tragically, at others beautifully but always magically. (DVD AMARCORD)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland and Hip-Hop Became A Southern Thing / by Roni Sarig

For the longest time it seemed like the world of hip-hop derived from two exclusive geographical sources: New York City and Southern California. Having originated in the South Bronx in the early 1970's when independent funk acts like Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, DJ Hollywood, Kurtis Blow along with many others began combining looped percussion beats with rhyming samples of spoken word poetry, the form of musical expression called hip-hop, known as rap or beatboxing in the early days, became semi-permanently relegated to the country's top two media markets. For the entire decade of the eighties and much of the early nineties, this remained the case. No one really complained. It was an accepted fact that these two centers had always held the infrastructure necessary to support the entertainment mediums of music, movies and TV. But with the advancement of the digital age and the merging of mainstream music with the underground in the mid to late 1990's, everything changed.
Author and music writer Sarig chronicles the complete history of Southern hip-hop beginning with the movement's roots in which recording artists like Jermaine Dupri, Pharrell Williams and Master P broke industry protocol and created their own production labels which promoted performers from the regions they were most familiar with--Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, et. al. Cataloging Southern hip hop through the last decade or so is no easy task and even the most casual music fans can appreciate the complexity of such an undertaking. But Sarig knows his stuff. He displays a remarkably encyclopedic knowlege about his subject, extrapolating on everything from the Luther Campbell's innovative lyrical style with 2 Live Crew and the Miami club scene to Outkast in Atlanta and of course the violent eruption of the Houston's own 'chopped and screwed' motif. It's not a purely informational resource though. Sarig, with his witty and enthusiastic candor, clearly enjoys detailing how hip hop from the Dirty South came to the forefront of the industry and engagingly describes the nitty gritty details of personal partnerships, stylistic tendencies and business agreements. Stories of record shops which were the legendary acts once frequented, nightclubs and street corners from Charlotte to Dallas and everywhere in between where up-and-coming rappers once exposéd their skills, are thoroughly revealed in this interesting chronicle of pop music history, sure to be a hit with fans. (782.4216 SARIG)

Of Human Bondage / by W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham was actually born in France in 1874 as the son of an English diplomatic lawyer living in Paris. His father, knowing that any child born on French soil could be conscripted into military service at any point during his or her lifetime, arranged for William to actually be born inside the British Embassy compound. Soon after Maugham was enrolled by his parents in an English boarding school where, like his three elder brothers, he was expected to begin his studies which would see him follow the path of his father into law. His formative years were anything but happy however as the early deaths of both his parents made for difficult, isolated upbringing. Turning to writing after dabbling in a medical career, Maugham penned his most famous novel, Of Human Bondage, a semi-autobiographical fable of a young man's wanderings through life, in 1915. The book brought mixed critical feelings but popular mainstream success at the time and has remained among the classics of early twentieth century literature.

"Art," he continued, with a wave of the hand, "is merely the refuge which the ingenious have invented, when they were supplied with food and women, to escape the tediousness of life." (p. 174)
With the death of his mother and father only a few months apart, 9-year-old Philip Carey is sent to live with relatives in the small village of  Blackstable where his uncle, a the local parson, assumes his guardianship. Though he has inherited a small fortune from his parents, the money is held in custody by his uncle until Philip reaches the age of twenty-one, a situation making the youth's early days at the vicarage a bit difficult. It's not long before he's sent to Tercanbury, a boarding school where things are much worse as his shyness and club foot make fitting in a difficult task. Philip is a good student though and having demonstrated considerable academic prowess during his time at Tercanbury, he earns a scholarship for clerical studies at Oxford which he promptly turns down (to the grievance of his uncle and headmaster) for a chance to study in Germany at the prestigious Heidelberg University. It's here at home amidst the intellectual crowd who open his mind to a more idealized world that Philip gradually turns his back on the stiff, institutionalized values of his upbringing and focuses his time and energy on cultivating a profession and lifestyle of his own choosing.
Upon returning home to England eager to rebel against convention, Philip meets a middle-aged family friend named Miss Wilkinson whose open flirtatiousness and evident availability startle the younger man initially. He's not attracted to Miss Wilkinson but rather likes the idea of carrying on an affair and is complicit as her lover out of little more than caprice. It's not so much fun once Philip finds out how deep her attachment is to him. In part to offset the undesirable conditions of the affair, Philips goes to London to try his hand as an accounting and later to Paris to study art where he meets and shares a genuine friendship with Fanny Price, yet another woman who has an unrequited affection for him. Realizing that Philip will never love her, the pennyless Fanny commits suicide prompting Philip to return to London to pursue a career in medicine, his late father's field. Things are little better in the city where medical school proves to be a tough order and Philip runs into more women trouble when he falls in love with a cockney waitress named Mildred. The encounter leads to a series perturbing problems for Philip. Over the next few years Mildred and a steady stream of other women seem to have a way of keeping Philip 'bound' to a life of strife and complications, circumstances which slowly force the young man (now growing older) to come to terms with his exotic ambitions and lofty philosophical ideals.
Every place is the same. This abiding principle, along with other circular themes like man's search for meaning, the quest for fulfillment, and the nature of desire, comprise this masterfully delivered novel, truly one of the treasures of twentieth century fiction. All of the sequences, all of Philip's thoughts and encounters, his convictions and introspections, are carefully articulated in reverberating, yet poignant style by Maugham who no doubt exorcises some of his own demons with the effort. His protagonist Philip is every bit a modern 'everyman', and, in that respect, a proverbial 'everyman' foreseeing a world of opportunity and self-manifestation absent the psychological pitfall of failure. He's not absurdly naieve or an especially self-deluded individual, just someone discontented with not knowing. It's not until he's exhausted his ambitions, his plans and found only futility in wayward relationships that his ideals are inevitably deconstructed and put away in the final pages. "He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His Ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories." (p. 564). (FIC MAUGHAM)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a Christian and an Abolitionist, meaning that she was opposed to slavery. She first started Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a serial in June 1851, in the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era. The series was immensely popular, and the book was printed in March of 1852. The book was a runaway best seller, both at home and abroad. While anti-slavery was not a popular sentiment at the time, Stowe’s book helped stir up feelings both for and against the institution of slavery.

Reading the book today, it is hard to remember that slavery had such acceptance at one time, and that Ms. Stowe’s portrayal of African-Americans as not only creatures who lived and breathed, but as thinking , feeling and caring people was unheard of for most Americans. It was a radical book. The story is about Uncle Tom, an older slave in Kentucky, and Eliza, a young woman, a slave in the same Kentucky family. Tom is sold to pay his master’s debt, and Eliza’s child is sold also, except that she runs away when she hears what her master has done. Their separate stories make up the book.

Today we use the phrase “bleeding heart” in a way to make fun of people, but in that time a writer like Ms. Stowe had no qualms about using that expression seriously. Her work has been criticized for being overly sentimental, creating characters who are angel-like, as little Eva, a Southern planter’s daughter, and devil-like, as Tom’s last owner Simon Legree. Suffice it to say, that Ms. Stowe has defended herself that she wrote it as an argument, and so the book should not be expected to have literary merit. But the characters are compelling, even if their strengths and weaknesses are exaggerated. And in accordance with Ms. Stowe’s Christianity, their failings are always excused, encouraged and even aided by the world, while sympathy, love and compassion find obstacles at every turn.

The character Uncle Tom, as a Christian, believes his body may be bought and sold, but not his soul. His character has been maligned by white and black alike, for what has been called his ‘servile’ acceptance of his condition. Yet in the book, he is a strong figure, one who many turn to for advice and consolation – the master as well as the slave.

Abraham Lincoln met Ms. Stowe in 1862, after the Civil War had started. His words: “So this is the little lady who started this Great War”, may not be entirely accurate. Different economic structures, state vs. federal rights - these and other concerns were also at issue. Still, Uncle Tom’s Cabin played an important role in that war; the greatest separation that this country has so far experienced.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Star Island / by Carl Hiaasen

Novelist Carl Hiaasen loves to hate on his home state of Florida. A lifelong resident of the lower peninsula, he has stated that the "Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you'd be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office."* The hilarity of his novels make it hard for the reader not to find themselves in on the joke, laughing along with him at this often sleazy though steadily popular region of the country and his latest caper is among his most fantastic. With scathing satire, he follows the cult of celebrity to South Beach where the stardom of a local teen queen pop star is shakily held together by a colorful collection of parents, promoters, publicists, bodyguards, body doubles, paparazzi and drug dealers.

Star Island in South Beach, Miami is exactly what sounds like: a place where celebrities and wannabe celebrities live in fabulously overpriced mansions. Julio Iglesias, P. Diddy, Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal and Gloria Estefan are just a few of the wealthy A-listers who claim residence on the artificial plot of imported sand which allows waterfront access to both the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay. Currently it's being used to do a photo shoot of Cheryl Bunterman, a teen pop sensation known to all her fans as "Cherry Pye" and who's gearing up to go on tour to promote her new CD Skantily Klad. Despite the fact that Cherry has absolutely no discernible singing talent, her actual voice likened to "sackful of starving kittens", and can only lip synch her lyrics and dance competently on a good night, the 22-year-old has made it to megastardom through the shrewd marketing tactics of her parents and promoters. Particularly it's been the work of her mother Janet and veteran talent agent Marty Lykus who've manipulated Cherry's casual good looks into a blend of sex appeal and youthful rebellion to create a brand of entertainment gold they've termed BLS--"Barely Legal Slut".
Of course with the fame and fortune have come some unpleasant repurcussions, namely Cherry's beyond addictive lifestyle to drugs, alcohol and promiscuity which have imperiled her legitimacy as a performer and the timing of her upcoming tour, not to mention her health and life exectancy. It's gotten so out of control that Cherry's handlers have hired a permanent lookalike, an out of work actress named Ann Delusia, to double as Cherry whenever the starlet herself OD's at a hotel or causes a scene at a club and needs to be stealthily evacuated away from the gloating paparazzi. Ann herself knows she's got a decent gig relatively speaking. Lately though things with Cherry have become so extreme, the pop tart's nightly binges needing medical attention and thus a stand-in to play her passed out in a backseat or even stretched out on a gurney, that Ann's decided to seriously reconsider her career options and definitely renegotiate her contract with Marty and the Buntermans. But before she can express any discontent to her employers, Ann is kidnapped. The peculiar looking man who abducts her goes by the name of Skink and is the type of Florida eccentric who lives in a shack in the Everglades and cooks his own Alligator meat. He's also an ecoterrorist who needs Ann as a pawn in one of his vigilante schemes to get revenge on a specifically greedy set of Florida real estate developers.
Carl Hiaasen just may be America's best comic novelist. Star Island is one of those books which is so laugh-out-loud funny that rereading certain segments becomes something you do on a Friday or Saturday night in place of normal good times. While Hiaasen's other novels have showcased his obvious talent for lampooning things like crooked politics and corrupt businessmen, none of his previous work has quite encompassed the world of our celebrity-obsessed culture like this. Following the trail of Cherry and her colorful crew of exploiters and parasites, most of them thoroughly sleazy characters though sly enough to milk the situation for all it's worth, is a heck of a toboggan ride down the starlet's path of scandalous self-implosion, each turn of the page a creating a new player with a new angle and a new nugget of tabloid gold. Throw in a few recurring characters like Skink and Cherry's cattle prod-toting bodyguard Chemo, each featured in other Hiassen favorites like Skin Tight and Skinny Dip, and the author's longtime readers as well as a great many novices new to the writer's unique brand of acerbic wit and zany plots are in for a real treat. (FIC HIAASEN)

*Kroft, Steve: "Florida: A Paradise Of Scandals" CBS News 60 Minutes, April 17, 2005

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Impact / by Douglas Preston

Massachusetts native Douglas Preston began his career as a contributing columnist for periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and Smithsonian. As a both a novelist and non-fiction writer, his material, concentrated in the techno-thriller genre but well-grounded in conventional narrative style, is broadly accessible and uniquely suited to readers of all tastes. Recently some of his most well-regarded works including The Cabinet of Curiosities, The Ice Limit, Riptide and Relic, have been co-authored Lincoln Child, himself the author of several popular eco-thrillers. The character of Wyman Ford, an ex-CIA agent turned freelance undercover operative, has appeared in his last four Douglas Preston solo novels including his most recent, Impact, which chronicles the intriguing set of circumstances on earth following the peculiar crash landing of a meteorite from outer space.

One peaceful New England night, a comet rips through the sky over the coast of Maine landing (it seems) in the ocean only a few knots beyond a small fishing village. At precisely the same moment another meteorite makes impact in a remote part of the Cambodian jungle creating a crater approximately a mile in diameter. Though a rather ironical coincidence, the event is forgotten only a few days after the fact until some strange gemstones of a seemingly amber origin begin to emerge on the black market. When a Washington socialite who's been seen around town with a necklace bearing one of the gems is diagnosed with radiation poisoning, the stones are analyzed and determined to contain a peculiar type of gamma ray radioactivity. While it's anyone's guess as to the origin of the stones, the source needs to be located and soon. At a loss for what to do and running out of time, the feds call upon ex-CIA operative and fix-it specialist Wyman Ford to investigate. Ford works fast, connecting the origin of the stones to a naturally dug crater in Cambodia only to conclude that the large hole in the ground being mined by the natives, the sight of the aforementioned meteorite crash, is an exit point from which the substance in question was propelled out of the ground, not into it.

Meanwhile back in Maine, Abby Straw is a an Ivy League dropout living in her podunk hometown of Round Pond when she sees the meteorite drop from the sky and land just over the horizon. A bit of an astronomy enthusiast whose in need of some cash (knowing that any kind of orbital matter could fetch a hefty sum on ebay), Abby thinks she knows where the artifact may have landed, and contrary to the public opinion, it's not in the ocean but rather on a small uninhabited island just a few miles away from the shore. So with her friend Jackie tagging along, Abby 'borrows' her dad's fishing boat and sets out to excavate the site. What she doesn't know however, but what she soon finds out is that she may be dealing with more than just a piece of a meteor from outside the atmosphere, and where it came from may not have anything to do with asteroids or meteors but rather an extraterrestrial presence just a few light years away on Mars. Preston writes compelling characters and knows just how much science to input into his stories to create good narrative. As the mystery of the meteorite unravels, the author craftily merges the facts about astrophysics and current NASA-based research about Mars with a good backstory and storylines involving the two protagonists. And though it's multi-faceted sequences concerning the various characters take a while to come together, the book meets with a satisfactory conclusion and a good jumping off point for what promises to be an eagerly anticipated sequel. (FIC PRESTON)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Just for fun

The British newspaper The Guardian published a list of the ten best moustaches in literature. Take a look at their list here:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lost In The Meritocracy: The Undereducation of An Overachiever / by Walter Kirn

"Percentile is destiny in America" (p. 5)

Like a lot of people Walter Kirn once esteemed the American higher education system as the pinnacle of scholarship. As a youth in rural Minnesota he ambitiously climbed his way up the ladder of honors classes, standardized tests and class rankings to a slot at an Ivy League school, Princeton to be exact. Originally a place his preconceptions had led him to believe to be a temple of elevated learning where students eagerly engaged a life of the mind, Princeton he soon discovered was a frighteningly different place altogether where social climbing, pedigree, brown-nosing and recreational drug use were the norm and the concept of scholarship had more to do with CV padding than learning and acquiring knowledge. In his literature classes, for example, Walter discovered that the object was not to analyze the structural content of course texts as much as it was to mirror the instructor's critical theories and pontificate on his or her own personalized opinions of said texts within the designated coursework--actual reading of the books was never officially required.
It wasn't as if ambition or intellectual application was lost, rather Kirn found that it had been replaced by a quasi-scholastic system in which grade-grubbing and institutional meritocracy had usurped the pursuit of truth as the chief objectives within higher education. Gradually Kirn learned to play the game as well. He assimilated himself into the realm of the right classes, preferred curriculum and, of course, the appropriate peers. Kirn, it turns out, "learned a lot"; just not quite in the field(s) he'd originally thought he would. His recollections within this memoir, funny and satirical throughout, ring true at every turn. It may not qualify as an official indictment of America's higher education system, but does suggest every so slyly that the real higher education of today's college bound has little to nothing to do with indoctrinating oneself on the knowledge of the world and everything to do with accreditation for personally specialized reasons of self-promotion. Conversely, pursuing and meriting a degree, especially one from the elite realms of higher learning, has as much to do with educating oneself on the right ways going about it than with simply appropriating a chosen field of study and applying yourself to its fundamental precepts. (B KIRN)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

This book was first published in 1931, yet it still retains the qualities for readers today that made it a worldwide best seller for so many years. Pearl Buck was born in the United States but raised in China by missionary parents, so she identified with the Chinese and spoke the language fluently.

The story concerns Wang Lung the farmer, and traces his life from early marriage on, encompassing his rise to prosperity through hard work and trusting in the land, the source of his livelihood. He lives through famine and times of social upheaval. We are with him throughout his struggles, sympathizing with his willingness to endure as long as he has his connection with the earth, with the rhythm of its seasons and harvests. Events encountered later have more to do with his family and their relationships. Buck’s portrayal of these situations is both skillful and sparing, letting the reader imagine what is left unsaid from his or her own life experience.

Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, and this award caused some controversy. Some critics of the award citied the author's tendency to give too much prominence to her message, which often resulted in a more superficial treatment of her characters. She wrote profusely, producing two or three books a year. Many of these are not memorable, but some of them are, and The Good Earth is one of her best efforts.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Songs For The Butcher's Daughter: A Novel / by Peter Manseau

In Massachusetts in the summer of 1996, a young man works diligently at translating some obscure Yiddish literary works when, almost by accident, he stumbles upon a 93-year-old man, one Itsik Malpesh, who claims to be the "last and greatest Yiddish poet in America". Originally from Kishinev in the Russian Empire (modern day Moldova), Malpesh has come a long way, his life a twisting journey ever since the very beginning. He was born during a pogrom, or political uprising in which a series of riots directed towards the Jews in the region was intensely underway. While hiding from the marauders at one point during the upheaval, Itsik's mother, grandmother and sisters as well as the town butcher’s small daughter, Sasha, were discovered when Itzik’s mother unexpectedly went into labor and her birth pains alerted their pursuants. The story goes that all of the attackers froze when the young Sasha raised her fist against the intruders, ultimately allowing the family to escape. Since then, Malpesh has written poems, all dedicated to Sasha, in a collection he has called “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter.”
With help from the translator who dutifully records all of the pertinent details, Itsik lays down the story of his life, how he escaped further persecution in Russia during the revolution, fled Europe ultimately avoiding both wars and ended up in New York City's lower East Side during the Great Depression. It was here within the Jewish enclave of the broader immigrant community that the Yiddish language flourished and Itsik's gift for poetry began to be fully cultivated. Also relayed is the story of how, against improbable odds, Itsik was able to reconnect with Sasha, the two becoming lovers later in life until a crucial misunderstanding broke their bond and Itsik's faith in humanity.
More of a fictional recreation of the sage of real-life Yiddish poet Itsik Manger, who's story is more or less the same as Manseau's literary creation (odd how similar the names are), this is yet another book which attempts to preserve a forgotten part of Jewish heritage. It's a likeable story. The riveting chronicle of Manger/Malpesh, his words and poetry, is as good a saga as any to bridge the gap between languages, cultures and generations. Manseau, his own alter ego forming the book's other main character of the Yiddish translator, nicely lays down the finer points of Jewish folklore and mysticism in addition to fleshing out a good narrative. But although Itsik's life is cleverly told, he and the other characters lack substance, and many unfolding events push the story outside the realm of believability. Taken into context with the historical anecdotes of Manger's own life, the book becomes a bit convoluted as it goes on. (FIC MANSEAU)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Anne Frank: the Anne Frank House authorized graphic biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

Instead of a graphic novel of The Diary of Anne Frank, this is a graphic biography of Anne and her family, in which the diary is quoted. The book was well-researched and has panels that record the historical progress of the Nazi party, World War II, and the eventual annihilation of 6 million Jews, along with millions of other victims. All of the Frank family except the father are eventually killed or die in captivity.

The drawings of the characters are carefully reproduced from existing photographs and paintings, and show little Anne being outspoken and rebellious from her childhood. While greatly loved by her family and others, her impetuousness earned her much criticism, especially when she was shut up in the Secret Annex. The Annex were the rooms she and her family hid in for 2 years, with 4 others, that were in the same building as her father’s business.

Many people helped the family, but many Dutch citizens “looked the other way” while Nazi supporters found and rounded up Jews and other undesirables for the concentration camps. The book characterizes the Nazi supporters as “Dutch Nazis”, and makes no mention of the silence of the majority of those living in the Netherlands. The book also takes the standard line of Anne being a world famous writer – without the explanation that her plight actually thrust her and her thoughts into the limelight.

Some reviewers feel that this book can stand alone, and is not simply an extension of the Diary of Anne Frank. But if you only read this, you miss the sweetness, the intense quality Anne had with those around her. You miss her ruthless sketch of the tiresome couple they hid with, her aching feelings of being so pent up, so imprisoned for two years. This biography is well- crafted and informative, but it fails to “flesh out” Anne’s story, no more than Anne herself was able to do.

1215: The Year of the Magna Carta / by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham

In 1215 at Runnymede, a small section of forest west of London, the English nobles and King John (of Robin Hood fame) met peaceably to discuss the king's arbitrary rule of law opposing the canonical law of the land. Over-taxation and costly wars had made the King unpopular with the council of lords and barons who believed that the monarch already wielded too much power. Thus the nobles, rather than raise arms against the monarchy, an event which many felt would only lead to Civil War and increased French influence in the region, resorted to an ultimatum. King John would sign a treaty pledging to limit his sovereign priveleges and relegate authority to the barons or commit to an all out, self-destrucive war. Besides laying down restrictions to the king's authority, the 63 clauses of the charter introduced legislation regarding the right to a fair trial, right to own property and other stipulations involving personal freedoms and liberties. The document, then known as the 'Articles of the Barons' or simply the 'Runnymede Charter', became known as the Magna Carta.
Though of minimal significance for its time--it was repealed and reconfirmed at intervals over the next few years--the Magna Carta would resonate through the ages as perhaps the most important individual document on civil liberties, including inalienable human rights and 'self-evident truths', that the world has ever seen. More importantly, it was the document which the American Founding Fathers perpetually referenced when drafting the Declaration of Independence and, later on, the U.S. Constitution. Danziger, already well-known for his concise histories which pinpoint a precise year, extrapolates here on the people and lifestyles during the early part of the 13th century in a more conventional historical chronicle rather than go into detail about the political ramifications of the charter itself. The actual Magna Carta isn't really got into until the final chapters with the signing of the document only found in the book's last pages. It's still a fun, informative and entertaining bit of history. (942.033 DANZIGER)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Senior Sleuths

The Shooting in the Shop: A Fethering Mystery / by Simon Brett
Chummy widows in the small coastal village of Fethering, England, Carole Seddon and her friend Jude are two former knockouts aging gracefully as they like to call it. When trendy shop around the corner burns to the ground and the daughter of a local couple is found dead inside, Carole and Jude think arson may be afoot and get busy on the sleuthing. (MYS BRETT)

She Shoots to Conquer / by Dorothy Cannell
Ellie Haskell may look and think like Miss Marple, but she’s her own person and can distinguish herself as well as anyone, especially when television cameras are around. When another mystery crops up involving some stolen diamonds, Ellie starts snooping around the Lord’s estate where the jewels were taken and where also, the production for a popular reality television is underway. (MYS CANNELL)

Wanting Sheila Dead: A Gregor Demarkian Novel / by Jane Haddam
Retired FBI agent Gregor Demarkian may be getting on in years but he’s feeling younger these days after his marriage and recent honeymoon, at least until he and his new wife arrive back in Philadelphia to find their reclusive neighbor dead, possibly poisoned. Meanwhile, a rather scandalous game show host, Sheila Dunham, has been the target of an assassination attempt and Demarkian has been asked to brainstorm on just who the would-be killer is? (MYS HADDAM)
What Are You Wearing to Die?: A Thoroughly Southern Mystery / by Patricia Houck Sprinkle
Home-grown Georgia gal MacLaren "Mac" Yarbrough may not look like your average detective, but the aging southern belle has always loved to play detective, so much so that her husband Joe has tried anything and everything to keep her from meddling in other people’s affairs. But when a local young mother is found dead, even Joe’s good-natured efforts at preventing her from getting involved can’t keep Mac from another mystery. (MYS SPRINKLE)

Survival Memoirs

On the Edge of Survival: A Shipwreck, a Raging Storm, and the Harrowing Alaskan Rescue that became a Legend / by Spike Walker
In the rough Alaskan seas off the coast of the Aleutian Islands, a Malaysian cargo ship ran aground during a particularly brutal storm. Upon lifting the last 7 crewmen from the sinking ship, the rescue helicopter was hit by a massive wave, plunging the crewmen, the USCG rescue team and the remains of the vessel into the below freezing waters. All would undergo one of the most death defying feats of survival before all was said and done. (910.916434 WALKER)

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World / by Joan Druett
In 1864, Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew of four were aboard the HMS Grafton when it shipwrecked on Auckland Island, a barren, desolate slit of uninhabitable land just south of New Zealand. With little means to relay an SOS and limited provisions, Capt. Musgrave and the crew built a cabin, forged for food and sustenance and survived the overbearing tropical elements as best they could until hope arrived in a most remarkable way. (919.399 DRUETT)

Lost in the Amazon / by Stephen Kirkpatrick as told by Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick
In 1995, scientist Stephen Kirkpatrick and a five-man expedition set off into the remote jungles of the Peruvian Amazon to document an area of  uninhabited rainforest. Within hours of their departure, the team became hopelessly lost amid the dense jungle. For a period of several weeks, they endured everything the harsh environment threw at them in an attempt to find their way back to civilization, learning as they went that survival is not just physical, but a mental and spiritual challenge as well. (918.5 KIRKPATR)

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days On The Mountain and My Long Trek Home / by Nando Parrado
This personalized memoir over 30 years after the fact chronicles the legendary 1972 plane crash of a Uruguayan Rugby team in the Peruvian Andes. Their's was a truely harrowing and (literally) gut-wrenching tale of survival. Stranded for nearly two and a half months on the western slope of a snowcapped mountain peak, those that survived the crash were forced to turn to the most savage means in order to last out the terrifying ordeal before a rescue effort finally found them. (982.6 PARRADO)