Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Four Stages of Cruelty / by Keith Holihan

19-year-old Joshua Riff, an inmate at Ditmarsh Penitentiary in Minnesota, has been temporarily relocated to the infirmary where he's made a friend with another inmate, Jon Crowley. Crowley is currently writing a book, a comic book, on the history of Ditmarsh prison for which Josh is helping to illustrate. Monitoring the infirmary portion of the prison is Kali Williams, a corrections officer who's been with the prison longer than most of the prisoners. Something puzzles Kali Williams about the pair and even more so when Crowley suddenly disappears. No one has a clue where he might have gone to. But as Williams begins investigating, using the unfinished comic history and Josh's crazy story as a clue, she begins to find more than she ever could have bargained. For beneath the surface of things, indeed beneath the prison itself, is a long-abandoned isolation chamber called "the City" of which none but the oldest surviving prisoners, Crowley among them, are aware of.

This book is a lot of fun. Hollihan creates a story that, while not as original as some others, is certainly a page turner with his three central characters all well-fleshed out and the plot grounded in a suprisingly real context. There are lots of twists and turns leading to a great and very satisfactory ending and the themes of prisoners feeling more "free" than their jailers who seem more "jailed". It's a story and characters for which the reader will surely be able to identify with--haunted prisons (both metaphorically and metaphysically) a genre unto itself--and the writing keeps the pages turning in a satisfying manner. (FIC HOLLIHAN)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Books Curated Collections John Waters at Strand Books

Ever wondered what John Waters reads? The Strand Bookstore in NYC has featured a "John Waters-curated" collection of books -- in other words, a set of books that Waters recommends. The collection is not as nutty as I would have expected. Waters is obviously a broad reader -- and of course any insight into his highly unusual mind is interesting. Check out his picks here:

Books Curated Collections John Waters at Strand Books

Edgar Nominees

Yesterday night the Mystery Writers of America presented their annual Edgar awards. Take a look at the nominees and winners here and drop by the Reference Desk if you see any that you'd like us to help you find:

Edgar Nominees

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SHAM: How the Self-help Movement Made America Helpless / by Steve Salerno

There are a lot of self-help books out there, hoards of them. To so many Americans they seem like the answer while to others they are simply, well, a joke. But the validity of the psychology, or pop psychology, in the pages of said texts isn't even the real issue according to author and investigative reporter Greg Salerno. Characterizing his subject matter as the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (SHAM), Salerno illuminates the world behind all of the redundant fads and energetic slogans to reveal multi-billion dollar industry which has basically sprung up overnight, an industry which does as much damage as productivity.

The author shows how pretty much anyone, credentialed or not, accredited or not, can become a motivational speaker, an expert or guru and proceed to dispense advice on anything and everything from mental health to relationships, getting fit to getting rich, and other things. It's no secret that the countless dollars Americans spend every year on self-help programs and products can lead to financial problems, both at the personal and corporate level (private companies annually pour billions of dollars into motivational programs for employees). The author's key points revolve around how these motivational products can hurt quality, productivity, and morale as much as they may potentially help it. Recovery movements, rehab programs and get-out-of-debt schemes, operate in much to the same way, shifting the burdens of personal responsibility by labeling just about anything as a disease or dysfunction. As Salerno shows, to describe self-help as a waste of time and money vastly understates its collateral damage. The solution he says is for the individual to wake up to the fact that personal growth shouldn't require so many outside influences and that achieving goals or objectives, more often than not, are almost never a singular solution. (155.2 SALERNO)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sci-Fi writers who imagined technology that we use today

This site came to my attention through a post on Boing-Boing. It contains a list of authors who imagined modern technologies way before their time. I knew there were a lot of these just from my reading, but I haven't run across a list like this before -- it is fascinating! Check it out on the Technovelgy website here.

Exercise for the poetically-minded

Kristen Hoggatt offers a few suggestions for better exercise through poetry:

The Smart Set: Break a Sweat - April 22, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

187 (DVD) 1997 / a film by Kevin Reynolds; screenplay by Scott Yagemann; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Clifton Collins Jr., John Heard and Kelly Rowan

"Like you, I used to think the world was this great place where everybody lived by the same standards I did, then some kid with a nail showed me I was living in his world, a world where chaos rules not order, a world where righteousness is not rewarded. That's Cesar's world, and if you're not willing to play by his rules, then you're gonna have to pay the price."

High school science Trevor Garfield is one of a special breed of people with a sincere desire to teach. His is not just a passion to instruct his pupils on the wonders of the scientific world, but a deep need to influence the young lives he comes into contact with, especially the lives of those who are on the cusp of making potentially life-altering choices. It's not an easy job. At the Brooklyn school where he teaches, he struggles to maintain order in his always disruptive classes and walk the line between instructor and disciplinarian. When he's forced to give a failing grade to a student, a known criminal named Dennis Broadway, Garfield unwittingly unleashes a premeditated murder hit, a 187, on his own life. Attacked only hours later by a hooded assailant in the hallway, he's severely injured, almost dying prior to emergency rescue. Trevor is placed on stress leave to recuperate from the accident and, during the interval, relocates from New York to Southern California where he eventually offers his services to the public school system as a substitute teacher. He needs the paycheck and, well, he is a teacher. 

The new school he gets a chance at is little different from his former one. A woefully disorganized institution badly in need of repair, it's a place where the principals are defacto politicians who've never taught and the classrooms are hot, crowded cesspools of juvenile delinquents. The true students, the ones who have a chance are overshadowed by rambunctious riff raff, many of them active gang members, who willfully destroy school property and habitually threaten teachers with violence (like the one Garfield is replacing). It's not long before Garfield himself is threatened by a kid named Benito "Benny" Chacon, a graffito-tagger already under house arrest (an ankle bracelet on his left leg) who seems to enjoy terrifying his teachers and getting away with it--a pending lawsuit involving the school district has prevented his removal from the classroom. Other troublemakers, like Cesar, a less menacing version of the Benny, take center stage when Benny is notably absent from school. Cesar is actually someone Trevor thinks can be helped, seeing the kid as one of those caught-in-the-middle types. But what he finds is just the opposite. Some people, it seems, just don't want help.

187 was released to mediocre reviews, the critics hailing it as an unrealistic portrayal of urban high school life. Somehow this notion carried weight even with the screenplay written by a former teacher, Yagemann, who not only experienced documented cases of being threatened by students but worked under the supervision of a principal who'd never once taught in a classroom. Much of the drama is indeed laid on thick at times and the harsh thematic material involving the often unwinnable world of public education can be difficult to take in. There's also some awkward scenarios within the last third of the film which beg the question of plausibility. But aside from imperfections, there's an authenticity to the movie, its characters especially, which make parts of it undeniably brilliant. Jackson as Trevor and Clifton Collins Jr. in particular as the almost-too-believable Cesar (Collins Jr. then billed as Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez), both of them converging into the same type of insanity as the film nears its conclusion, create a foreboding picture of not only the microcosm of formative education but of a world which rewards compassion and courage with contempt and corruption. It's a system which leads more than a few, many of them very strong-minded individuals, down the path of fear and frustration to a dead-end scenario of despair and contempt. (DVD ONE)

The Jewel in the Crown, TV mini-series by Granada Television Ltd.

This British 1984 series, based on Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, made a big splash when it aired, first in England, and then in the United States on Masterpiece Theater. While Scott’s four novels about English rule ending in India are each written as a series of flashbacks, the TV production moves forward chronologically. The first novel takes as its focus two star-crossed lovers, an English woman and an Indian man recently returned to India, who was educated in a top public school but finds in India that his race takes precedence over his gentleman’s upbringing.

The girl, Daphne, is intent on making her own way in India, and is impatient and disdainful towards the racism inherent in the British “Raj” system of government. While the British have a paternal interest in educating the Indians to be soldiers and legislators, they want the Indians to follow their agenda, letting them share privileges only as they feel they have earned them. Many of the British administrators are fair and humane, but many are not, and these see the Indians as being untrustworthy and childlike.

The books and the series start with Daphne’s involvement with the Indian man Hari Kumar, and their subsequent tragedy becomes the foundation of the next three books. Scott does this by keeping those events alive through having their story retold, so what they suffered is like a continuing thread in the midst of new events and new characters. Scott only spent a short time in India, but admirably captures the tone and detail of his characters, whatever their walk of life and however short their role in the series. A jailed Indian Congressman, a coldly efficient and sadistic English policeman, a young girl finding nothing of meaning in her role of debutante amidst English soldiers - all of these Scott allows us to know and to appreciate, but only in making his final point – that the play is “played out”. It’s interesting that the series was so popular on British TV, when the outcome is so depressing. Evidently there was no such thing as “for God and country”… it was all a terrible mistake. While the acting and setting in the series is excellent, the absence of any hopeful outcome, however guarded, left me feeling sadder for having watched it.

Where is your favorite place to read?

The LA Times' book blog, Jacket Copy, recently posted an entry on Sony's survey on consumers' favorite places to read. The answers may not surprise you, but they are kind of fun, anyway. Take a look here. In this gorgeous weather we've been having, my favorite place is out on the swing on my back porch. What about you?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cubism / by David Cottington

Avant-Garde artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque may not have intended to spearhead a revolutionary style of art in Montmartre, France circa 1907, but that’s precisely what happened. Between 1907 -1914 Pablo Picasso along with George Braque were among the first to work in the new style of Cubism, one of the most influential, innovative styles of the early 20th century. It was Picasso’s paintings which first began portray hard angular forms using luscious colors like blue, strident yellow, black and white. For all who viewed these sharp-edged images on the canvas--heads and nudes mostly, in the brightest colors: yellow, red, blue and black--it represented a drastic departure from contemporary and conventional European artwork. It was something different, sure, but it was also something outside the conventional realm of the European aesthetic. This was because cubism, its non-fluid qualities and slanted brushwork, garishly attributed its methodology and ideology to more "primitive", non-archetypal artwork, in a sense merging the primitive with the abstract.

But the object of cubism wasn't merely to portray elemental forms within a geometric motif. These “new” paintings clearly characterized the representational as well as the structural, trying to reproduce the formal beauty of things. The objective of "cubism" was to represent the position of objects in space: the artist arranges images from a clearly defined background and works toward the front, envisioning an abstract, multi-dimensional piece. Other interpretations speculated that the style never meant to have anything to do with shapes or forms; nor was it a set of rigorously defined guidelines associated with geometry or rigid contours. Rather it was a style which invariably gave a fourth dimension to images. In any case, it was the beginning of a new wave of intellectual art in the twentieth century. Author and art scholar Cottington does a good job of providing the reader with a solid understanding of this unique style of artwork within the historical context it was associated with. (709.04 COTTINGT)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Paris Wife / by Paula McLain

In Chicago in 1920, Hadley Richardson is a twenty-eight-year-old St. Louis native who's feeling the effects of not having any marriage prospects, especially since many of her friends and onetime schoolmates have already tied the knot and are starting families. Then one night at a party, she meets a man named Ernest Hemingway who says to her straight away: "It's possible I'm too drunk to judge, but you might have something there." Hadley's instantly captivated by Ernest. His conventional good looks and charged charisma are great, but most of all it's his deeply passionate desire to become a writer that attracts her to him and, after only four months into their relationship, she finds herself engaged and then married to the man they call "Hem". Ernest wants to travel to Europe. They both do, but the money to live even modestly overseas just isn't available until a writer friend of Ernest's, author Sherwood Anderson, generously obliges their wishes, getting them the necessary funds and connections to set sail for Paris and its bohemian allure.

In the City of Lights, a place truly in of its more glittery stages, Ernest and Hadley are instantly welcomed into the well-known circle of famous expatriates that includes Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; James Joyce is also known to pop in on things once in a while too. The high life in Paris has its price though because, frankly, it's just not ideal for a monogomous married couple to begin their life. With time as their passions for each other inevitably wain, things grow more and more tenuous between the pair as Hadley becomes increasingly aware of her husband's fluctuating often desperate moods, his problematic binge drinking and tendency to flirt with other women. As Hadley struggles with jealousy and self-doubt and Ernest wrestles with his burgeoning writing career, they must confront the falsehood about themselves, their union and their futures.

The Paris Wife is a nice little book. A historical fiction-based-on-fact piece examining the personal history of not only one of America's better known writers, but an iconic world figure, it succeeds in illuminating a very interesting time, place and person. And though the writer's first marriage is almost, right from the get go, a doomed prospect, their's a charming sentimentality about the way McLain illuminates their time together through Hadley's first-person voice. It was an amicable enough marriage by all accounts despite it's failure and there was, for the most part, almost no recurring regrets or hard feelings lingering after their breakup from which Hemingway would marry three more times and Hadley once more. True to his reputation, however, Hemingway was definitely not an easy man to live with even if he was 'great at parties' and, of course, a dedicated literary craftsman. What's inferred from the text--deductions based more on fact than fiction--is that the author-legend probably never could have been a good husband type of man. His steady stream of extramarital affairs, moody instability, need for adventure and wanderlust lifestyle largely negated his ability to perform more domestic roles necessary for such an undertaking. (FIC MCLAIN)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Doll's House (DVD) 1973 / based on the play by Henrik Ibsen; starring Anthony Hopkins, Claire Bloom and Denholm Elliott

"The man is a moral cripple."

Nora Helmer leads an idyllic life. She's the pampered wife of Torvald Helmer, a banker and a man who spoils her with cash presents and little gifts almost daily, and she's the mother to 3 small children who are well-cared for by their own nanny. At least this is how it's seen from the outside looking in. In actuality, things are far different, and in fact they're becoming more desperate by the day. In connection to his recent promotion to bank manager, Torvald has elected to fire one of his employees, a man named Krogstadt, who's been accused of forging a signature on an important document. But there's something Torvald doesn't know about. What's being kept from him by Nora, and has been concealed from him for quite a while is the matter of a sum of money that Krogstadt once loaned Nora some years back when Torvald was very ill and needed a vacation.

It is not only the debt which Nora has been secretly working off which binds her loyalty to Krogstadt, but the fact that Nora is herself guilty of forging a signature, that of her own father (then deceased) as guarantor on the loan. This little secret, something for which Krogstadt is now blackmailing Nora to keep his job, will be found out sooner or later, and it is Nora dignity, Torvald's reputation and Krogstadt's livelihood which lies in the balance. But how can Nora even approach Torvald with the knowledge that his future is in jeopardy, especially since their relationship has never gone beyond the boundaries of familial niceties and formal gestures of flimsy affection--Nora essentially treated as a 'doll' of Torvald's?

This is a first-rate adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic tale, a filmed version of a play which included many of the same participants from the West End theatrical production. It is a story about lies and deceit, about place and society and, above all, of patriarchal hypocrisy of men and the victimization of women. A resplendent core cast of actors, namely Bloom, Hopkins and Elliott, all of whom were in their prime, or in Hopkins' case, just moving to the forefront of the A-list, entwine the audience to the suspense and conflict which arise out of circumstance and desperation. But it's Ibsen's finely crafted drama, his interweaving of chance, ambition and existential conundrums, which set A Doll's House (first written and produced in 1879) at a level above so many other classic fables and morality plays. The rising theme is bigger than what many consider it's crux, that of emerging feminism, to be. At it's core, it is a piece which exemplifies the human condition, indeed the need of every individual discover the kind of person they really are and strive to embody that person throughout their life. (DVD DOLLS)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother / by Amy Chua

"This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” (cover)

The daughter of first generation Chinese immigrants, Amy Chua's childhood was instilled with the virtue of hard work, the value of academic excellence and the efficacy of superior performance achieved through strict attention-to-detail and time-intensive practice. It paid off. She excelled in school enough to get into Harvard where she also excelled, graduating magna cum laude in Economics and again cum laude from Harvard Law School. Currently she's a Yale professor and has a resume which includes a former professorship at Duke and an executive editor position for the Harvard Law Review.

Not without controversy, her parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, contrasting the Chinese way of child-rearing and the Western/American approach, probes, among other things, the reason why Asian children do better in school than Americans. Chua states, more than once, that her station and success in life is owed to the strict, uncompromising ideology which her parents adhered to during her upbringing; subsequently, she muses that it's no coincidence that Asian children do better in school than their Western counterparts. Americans are too concerned with self-worth and positive feedback, a system depriving children of the persistence needed to strive toward success. This westernized way of rewarding marginal achievements and too readily accepting failure  a viewpoint inevitably slanted toward sentimentality and self-esteem building, can't compete with the Chinese method more associated with punishing ignorance and extracting perfection, often through seemingly cruel and excoriating maneuvers. Additionally, by placing emphasis on a child's success in things like sports or drama, American parents are actually discouraging hard work in other more academically-oriented areas. 

But this book's not really about grades or test scores. Nor is it a hard-edged, this-is-the-right-way-to-do-things diatribe stressing personal preference or cultural difference. With candid exposition and good dose of familiar humor, it's more about Chua's interaction with her two daughters, how over the years she's imputed to them the same rigid structure her own childhood entailed and how the results have played out. No birthday parties, no sleepovers, no sports, no TV, no portable media devices, no being in school plays, no complaining about not being able to do/have said things, etc. pretty much grasps the gist of the way things work in the Chua's household. Failure to make not only good grades, but perfect grades, can and will result in removal and/or destruction of stuffed animals, dolls or toys. The same goes for not getting a musical solo piece exactly right within a condensed time window. Chua's narrative, strict stipulations and all, isn't as tyrannical as it may seem. Nor is the book a direct challenge to other, less aggressive parenting methods. In Chua's family, as in all cultures and generations, there are conflicts inherent in every parent-child relationship, problems which often have no solution, and stubborness at both ends which tends to escalate tension. There's also love, joy and genuinely heartfelt moments between mother and daughter(s), something making this book a worthwhile read. (B CHUA)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Strangers / by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is one of those writers which few people know about and even fewer will understand. But her genius won't be lost on those who commit to her work. Successfully completing her Art History Ph.D. in 1949, she worked as a fellow and a scholar in the profession for the next few decades, ultimately becoming the first woman to be awarded the Slade professorship at Cambridge and later receiving a CBE (Commander of the British Empire). Brookner didn't start writing until 1981 when at the age of 53 she published A Start in Life; three years later her novel Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize. In the time since, she's churned out 24 books with Strangers, her latest, successfully incorporating all of the intuition and high comedy she's come to be known for.

"Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers." (p. 1)

Londoner Paul Sturgis is 74, comfortably retired and alone. He's always been alone. And he's learned to accept it. Never having married, though not for want of trying (his only two serious liasons ended because both women felt he wasn't exciting enough), Paul's routine existence steadily plods along, revolving around morning coffee, visits to the library and Sunday trips across town to see his only other relation, Helena, who's not even a blood relative, only the widow of a cousin. He's keen on how he fits in to society, conscious of his effect on people, knows he can sometimes come off as too eager, too polite. An always internally recurring "You're too nice", a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion by a former girlfriend promptly before she left him, is the opinion firmly imbedded in his mind as too how others receive him. He's gotten used to it. A particularly emotionally cold upbringing, he knows, has committed to this life of obligatory inoffensive behavior. But he can always postulate (repeatedly) on the personal inadequacies post-childhood which may have contributed to his current disposition, chief among them his steady though decidedly non-essential career as a bank manager, a job he worked dutifully at until retiring early to avoid the humiliation of being replaced by "the new man with new ideas".

But even amidst his introspective, settled manner, Paul is no invalid; he's not a recluse or confirmed loner who won't approach even the idea of an active life or companionship and, inevitably, he can always begin to sense the restlessness of his station. Trying to shed his melancholy by changing his atmosphere, Paul suddenly jettisons off to Venice for the Christmas holiday where he hopes the sights and scenes, revisiting the same museums and restaurants he's been to before and staying at the same hotel with the same beds, will refresh his outlook. It doesn't work. He returns from his little vacation as desultory as when he left. But something which happened on the trip, an encounter on the plane and later reacquaintance at a restaurant with a fifty-ish divorcee, has ruffled his routine enough to take his mind off himself, if only for a little while. Or so he thinks.

What may seem another boring tale of elderly incapacity and despair upon first appearance (a sentiment parlayed by more than a few dour reviews) is actually something else entirely. Look closer. Take the time to let Brookner's words seep in and discover that Strangers is a truly poignant novel by an astoundingly gifted author. The book is in no way a sad novel; neither does it offer false hope. Rather it captures the condition of solitude in a staggeringly accurate, almost infallible way, unmistakeable in its manner of exacting a life lived inside the mind, from waking to sleeping, walking to sitting, almost on a moment to moment basis. And yet, at the same time, it's as charmingly candid an exposition of subject matter as anything could ever be, the author's manner and style a pleasant discovery at every turn. With Strangers, seemingly even the most mundane, the most pitiful and pathetic of lives becomes as engendering (and more so) as the youthful exuberance of more well-connected characters. No one who attempts to read Brookner with willing attention will be disappointed. (FIC BROOKNER)

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Cold Kiss / by John Rector

Fleeing a past they'd rather forget, Nate and Sara are two twenty-somethings driving from Minnesota to Reno to get married when they stop in to a diner to have lunch. There they meet a man, Syl White, who's car won't start. Syl also seems to be desperately ill though he vehemently denies it, saying he just needs a lift to Omaha for which he openly offers Nate over $500 in cash. Despite reservations, sympathy gets the better of them and they agree to give the stranger a lift. But as the trio set off, a furious snowstorm practically strands them on the road until by chance they stumble into a shabby motel, The Oasis Inn, where they discover that there passenger has not only been shot recently, but that he's (practically) dead. Owing to the storm, emergency relay is virtually impossible and further arrangements have to be delayed. But that's not all. Inside his coat pocket he's got over $20,000 in crisp new bills, a discovery startling both Nate and Sara until they get a look at what's inside Syl's briefcase--almost $2 million in cash.

In a panic over what to do and knowing that to take the money would mean having to lie about their encounter with the stranger, Nat and Sara spend the night restlessly trying to handle their little situation, ultimately deciding to abscond with the cash the following morning since nothing more can be done for their now decidedly dead passenger. That night Nate tries to hide the body, dragging it out of the car and into a nearby field where presumably it would be hidden from view. But someone sees him and before long, the couple's little plan becomes a desperate attempt to cover up their maneuvers as the ever-worsening blizzard keeps them snowed in at least for the next few hours and the curious story behind the money steadily unravels.

Having written nothing but short fiction before Cold Kiss, his first novel, Rector doesn't waste any time introducing his story and his ill-fated characters which he tailors into a fast and manageable read, one which maintains a steady stream of abrupt turning points throughout the narrative. There's nothing all that original about the plot--large sum of money of vague origins falling into the hands of some not-terribly-bright individuals/handful of strangers stuck together under confined conditions. But the author seems to know where he's headed. That is to say he knows where his characters are headed, all eight of them, who, while they may not jump off the page, are enough of an assortment imperfect people to both scrutinize and evoke sympathy simply because, not unlike real life, they're people who just can't seem to learn from their mistakes. (FIC RECTOR)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mall: A Novel / by Eric Bogosian

A graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, Eric Bogosian was actually born in Massachusetts to first generation Armenian-Americans. Following college, he moved to New York City where he's worked as an actor and writer and been called one of the most influential conventional playwrites of his generation. His 1987 off broadway play "Talk Radio", based on the real life of Denver Disc Jockey Alan Berg, won him a Pulitzer Prize with Bogosian later starring in the Oliver Stone film version of the same name. Another play, "suBurbia", about a group of slacker college-age kids who never left their hometown, was adapted to the big screen by Richard Linklater in 1996. Mall, published in 2000, is his first novel.

"The mall was the same, fully lit up but devoid of its warm-blooded content." (p. 243).

Malcolm "Mal" is a thirtysomething slacker who lives in his mom's basement. A speed freak who cooks his own methamphetamine, he's gotten so sick of his mother's consistent prodding and nagging that one day he shoots her dead, sets fire to his home and sets off to the local mall with a sackful of loaded weapons and a frenzied plan to implement further destruction. Among the shoppers and pedestrians on this particular day is Danny Marks, a jet-setting businessman with a fetish for underwear models and a penchant for peeping at girls in department stores. Danny's been scoping out the action in JCPenney's when he's caught by mall security and taken into custody. Elsewhere, Jeff is a mopy teenager who's just dropped another acid and is casually doing his people watching, sort of a habit of his, from a local bench. Donna is lonely housewife who's looking for a man and Michel, a Haitian immigrant, is a mall security guard who only wants to work hard and live honorably. As Mal and his personal armory converge on the mall and pandemonium invevitably ensues, all 5 characters, their needs and wants seemingly drawing them together, cross paths at the modern promenade of possibility in the most unlikely of ways.

Whether he's writing or acting, Bogosian seems to be at his best when he's jumping around from place to place at warpspeed. Something about a lot of characters, multiple backstories and a conflux of motivations converging over a very small window of time is where his ability really shines. "Talk Radio" and "suBurbia" were like this; both elucidating with candid, visceral authority the quiet desperation of malcontented middle-classers. But in the post-Pulp Fiction era, where hell-bent characters, drug-addled rage and trigger-happy lunatics are something to almost be expected in media of all forms, the approach can be risky. It doesn't matter. Bogosian's writing, his terse alternating sections thrust out by an omniscient narrator, ring true even as much of the time the action does the talking. Easy to read, with concepts and internal psyches that aren't hard to grasp, Mall is a candid look at the most normal of normal lives in the most pedestrian of places, illuminating a world in which we live and an atmosphere we think we know. (FIC BOGOSIAN)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Newer Civil War Fiction

Devil’s Dream / by Madison Smartt Bell
In the years leading up to the Civil War, soon-to-be Confederate General
Nathan Bedford Forrest marries a woman, has a child and adopts the position of slave owner in the rural south. Fast forwarding in time to Sherman’s march, which targeted Forrest directly, the general tries to fend off the South’s inevitable defeat as he looks back on his past. (FIC BELL)

Sweetsmoke: A Novel / by David Fuller
Cassius is a secretly educated slave on a tobacco plantation in Virginia.
 While the Civil War rages on around him, Cassius is pursuing his own cause: to find out who killed his adoptive mother, a free black woman named Emoline Justice. Setting out on the road, employing various aliases and ruses to avoid suspicion, Cassius encounters a world seemingly bent on chaos as he confronts soldiers, slave traders, spies, slaves both free and those still unliberated in his determined quest. (FIC FULLER)

Escape From Andersonville: A Novel of the Civil War / by Gene Hackman
Following capture by a Confederate regiment in 1864, Union Captain NathanParker and 23 of his men are transported to Andersonville prison in Georgia where deplorable treatment prompts Parker to hatch an escape plan. After the daring plan is carried off and the Captain finds himself on the outside, he formulates another daring plan: to improvise a scheme to rescue his remaining troops. (FIC HACKMAN)

Home Land: A Novel / by Barbara Hambly
As a nation goes to war and tensions rise between North and South, two
 women become close friends as pen pals sharing their lives to each other via correspondence. Susanna Ashford, a plantation owner’s wife, and Cora Poole, who lives on an isolated Maine island, find that they have more in common than just liking the same books. They also share a common bond of peace and companionship in a time of conflict. (FIC HAMBLY)

All Other Nights: A Novel / by Dara Horn
In 1862, Jacob Rappaport, a jew, runs away from home and enlists in the Union army where it doesn’t take for his superiors to catch wind of who he really is. Jacob comes from a very powerful mercantile family whose holdings are headquartered in both the South and the North. The 19-year-old is quickly employed as a spy to help the Union get an edge on the supply end of things. But when he’s assigned to infiltrate a Confederate spy, a young jewess named Eugenia Levy, Jacob finds that his mission has become endangered by his growing attraction to the girl. (FIC HORN)

Hallam’s War / by Elisabeth Payne Rosen
Leaving Charleston for what they think will be a better life in Tennessee, Hugh and Serena Hallam have set up shop at a farm called Palmyria with their
three children and 12 slaves. With war on the horizon, the Hallams are still hopeful that a peaceful resolution will come. But when the conflict can no longer be put off and war is declared, Hugh, a West Point graduate, heads off to fight for the Confederacy leaving Serena to deal with what is already the daunting task of running the farm. (FIC ROSEN)

The Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee

Coetzee was raised in South Africa and now lives in Australia. He is an acclaimed writer who writes of the legacy of lies that is generated from man’s inhumanity to man, from the unequal power structures that are created and exist within our neighborhoods, families, schools and governments.

The Age of Iron is his sixth novel. Written in 1990, in the last years under South Africa’s system of apartheid, the novel is about a Mrs. Curran, a white liberal South African, living in Cape Town, who is dying of cancer. The cancer has eaten into her bones. It gives her immense pain, but she does not want to check into a hospital, since she knows that all they will do is help to obliterate her, drown her with medication. South Africa has cancer too, suffering from a malignancy that has enveloped all its population. Mrs. Curran, as a liberal, has considered her existence as apart from the injustice of apartheid. As a university professor, she has bemoaned it, witnessed against it, and finally lived with it, although unwillingly. But what she will discover is that she has never been outside its influence. And instead of being a bystander, she finds that she has been an accomplice.

Mrs. Curran’s dying condition is what arrests her, opens up her life to the reality outside her. First she forges a strange alliance with a homeless man, an alcoholic, who she feeds and offers shelter to, asking him for favors - like helping her when the pain is too intense. He is inscrutable, as ready to curse her as to mutter an unwilling response, to her intense and agonized questions. Her black maid has a teenage son, caught up as all the other young black people are, in the violence happening in the townships - the official reaction to their demonstrations. Dying alone, Mrs. Curran sees the ties that others have, and follows any claim now put upon her. She drives her maid out to the township, and sees the boy’s body laid out, killed by the police. Later another black young man, the dead boy’s friend, comes to her for hiding and is found and killed in her own house.

Coetzee's writing is searing and memorable, spare yet evocative in detail and in mood. You cannot escape the impact of what he writes. Yet for all his understanding, he will not countenance any real hope for redemption. He points to our ability to fool ourselves, to weave impressions of our plight that suit our need for affirmation, that we can be “baring our soul” and still be manipulating our audience. Mrs. Curran has grandchildren – the sons of her daughter who fled South Africa, turned her back on her country and now lives in the United States. But Mrs. Curran does not envy those children. Instead, she regrets their having escaped this doom, this inheritance of weight and implication. To her, they will die “as stupid as the day they were born” – protected: never to drown, never to taste dirt in their mouth.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Coal Run / by Tawni O'Dell

There isn't much to Coal Run. It's always been a thoroughly forgettable place. Even back during its relatively prosperous days, and even before a mine explosion killed 96 men (half the entire male population), it was just another dying Pennsylvania coal town. But a generation later, the fierce pride of its people still resonates even as the physical evidence of wrecked lives and abandoned homes can kill the mood of observers. In its citizens, nearly all still feeling the effects of the disaster, flickers of the hardworking, blue collar spirit are still alive, it's women and (remaining) men holding on to what's left. This mentality of hardscrabble gumption is something Ivan Zoshchenko knows well as anyone. A former gridiron legend who left the town for further glory, the man known by all as "The Great Ivan Z" is back home after almost 20 years of drifting nomadically from one place to another. A sheriff's deputy, he now spends his days dealing with domestic disputes and high strung rednecks in a job--the only one he could get--which at least leaves his nights free to drink away his sorrows.

Anyway, it's the more personal matters that seem to occupy his time these days. With his father killed in the explosion, the only remaining family Ivan has are his stubborn mother, a hospital administrator still suppressing the past, and his staunchly independent sister, a single mom who despite her squalid living conditions, won't take any help from Ivan or her ex and never misses an opportunity to rail against the men in her life. There's also a little matter concerning two people he was once very close to--a friend and old girlfriend with whom he's lost touch. Only days away is the prison release of Reese Raynor, a onetime friend and teammate who's been serving time for beating his wife, (Ivan's ex) Crystal, into a coma. It's got Ivan thinking about the past more than ever and, as the release date lingers, he feels compelled to confront Reese, about his wife, sure, but also about a long-ago hidden secret the two men share and a regretful past that binds them both to the town.

O'Dell grounds her story in a starkly familiar world which no one will have difficulty engaging. Even readers who have no connection to the region and are unacquainted with the plight of its people, Coal Run communicates a common theme of grief, loss and regret with frightening realism. And while the character of Ivan, a figure mirroring the town's plight perfectly, can seem a bit unoriginal (the fallen athletic hero forced to come to terms with his shattered dreams) and O'Dell has a tendency to distort or oversentimentalize about his suffering, it's a story which moves along well enough. The book isn't really about individuals anyway. It's more of an acutely realistic case study of how past mistakes can reverberate, of how tragedy sometimes marks its survivors more than its victims and how the despair of dead-end lives exists right here in America, something which, as O'Dell tells it, is a story worth hearing. (FIC ODELL)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Quiver: A Novel / by Peter Leonard

Tragedy strikes 16-year-old Luke McCall, son of NASCAR champion Owen McCall, when he accidentally kills his father in a hunting accident. Plunged into a deep despair from which his mother Kate fears he may never get out of, Luke finds his circumstances altered when he's kidnapped and held for ransom by some East Detroit criminals barely older than himself. The trio, headed by a sadistic crystal meth-head named Teddy Hicks, someone who'd actually had a run-in with Owen McCall some years earlier, may seem bumbling but they're definitely as ruthless as they are witless and aren't afraid to resort to torturous methods to get what they want. Together with his girlfriend Celeste, a runaway, and Dejuan, a car jacker, they succeed in abducting their target but still can't decide on what to do about a mysterious fourth member of their party who's been operating behind the scenes.

45-year-old Jack Curran has a problem staying out of trouble. OK, maybe not so much as before he convicted of fraud and sent to prison, but he still feels the pull of his old life of crime, a life he was actually good at. It was a better gig, anyway, than the pittance he makes working as a laborer during his probationary period. So when he reads about an old girlfriend, a wealthy old girlfriend, who's just lost her racecar-driving husband, Jack decides to take a little trip. Kate McCall is more concerned than surprise when Jack shows up, seemingly out of thin air, and is frankly at a loss about what to do. Still in the process of grieving over her dead husband and managing her emotionally damaged son, Kate tries to do what she thinks is right, choosing to believe Jack's story about his investment property in Arizona and his occupation as a realtor. Plus there's a lingering attraction which she feels to the man she loved before she ever loved her husband and before any of her current misery befell her.

Quiver has all of the essentials of a classic Elmore Leonard novel but lacks much of the personality. Peter Leonard, son of the aforementioned (truly one of America's under-the-radar literary legends), succeeds in grasping the attention of the reader with those same brief, succinct sequences his father has demonstrated so brilliantly over the decades. Yet he doesn't quite complete the circle. His characters, nuanced and memorable as some of them are, don't quite stand on their own the way so many of his father's have. This is a problem because it kind of contributes to the disjointed first half of the book. Characters like Teddy and Dejuan, both recognizable Detroit-types who true Leonard fans won't miss on, are perhaps more forced than they need to be and Kate's backstory, which includes a harrowing near-death experience as a part of her early life, doesn't quite make her into a believable heroine at the conclusion. It's a good read though, solidly paced and short enough to hold interest of true thriller fans up until the very last stand-off. (FIC LEONARD)