Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Galveston: A Novel / by Nic Pizzolatto

Born in New Orleans but raised in Lake Charles, Nic Pizzolatto first gained notice for his writing as a student at LSU and later at the University of Arkansas where his inherent talents soon won him a teaching fellowship. His 2006 short story collection Between Here and Yellow Sea was shortlisted for the National Magazine Award and this, his first novel, was a finalist for the 2010 Edgar prize. Currently Pizzolatto is a staff writer on the cable television show "The Killing" appearing on AMC and recently, according to his website, he's been in preliminary talks about a screenplay for Galveston.

At 40, Roy Cady gets the news that he's dying; not by accident--it's lung cancer--which he figures is a life of hard living caught up to him. It might be easier to take though if he didn't also have the sneaking suspicion that his boss, one of New Orleans most dangerous loan-sharks, is trying to murder him, suspicions proven true after a routine errand turns violent. Deciding he'd like to live at least a little longer, and wanting to die on his own terms, Roy escapes the scene of the crime with a jittery teenage prostitute and some petty cash, headed west for the Texas border and hopefully some reliable distance between he and his enemies. His intentions, one being to ditch the girl at his first opportunity and the other being to disappear into the scenery, don't turn out so well when the girl, an underager named Rocky, manages to hitch along for the ride and then tricks Roy into retrieving her kid sister in Orange. Now Roy, a rogue more comfortable on his own yet somehow bound to these two misbegotten individuals, must try to hide out in the one place he's always felt drawn to--Galveston. A coastal locale well past its prime where strangers are oddly welcome and scraggly drifters like Roy come in all sizes, the island is where the trio feel out a refuge amid the seedy motels, tattered saloons and tawdry seaside amusements. But this adventure holds more than meets the eye as soon some eerily familiar and startling revelations emerge, one of which will affect the lives of all three for years to come.

This is the kind of story a lot of people wish they could tell and the kind of book a lot of writers wish they could write. Galveston, a familiar locale, is also a familiar tale, a story evoking an oft-repeated scenario of flight, consequence and repercussions. Probably a bit too dim for a 'caper' novel, it's the kind of memorable crime noir fiction which readers will remember more for its somber truths than its catchy passages and colorful characters. It is at any rate a solidly thorough standalone novel, perhaps due to the fact that the characters are the type of real people, the real everyday folks, whom everyone sees but nobody really knows. Roy and Rocky are archetypes and yet their's is a world of mystery where some secrets, likely more than a few of them, can never reach the surface. In another way, maybe the book's not really about that. Perhaps it's not intended as a character-driven story but rather one connecting the power of memory to a particular time and place. For Galveston is in many ways an atmospheric novel, surviving off the mesmerizing, if at times mildly melodramatic, descriptions of 'place' and 'aura' acutely manifested by its author. Pizzolatto's gift for description, his incandescence and lucidity are clearly relevant and readers will find they may be seeing bits and pieces of themselves in the pages. (FIC PIZZOLATTO)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shadows On The Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland / by Rowan Jacobsen

Disaster seems to like the Gulf region these days. Hurricanes, Floods and national emergencies have become part and parcel of the lives of Gulf Coast residents. So when an Oil Rig owned by the Deepwater Horizon company exploded off the coast of Louisiana, sending millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, it was just another arrow to the heart of those who make their livelihoods in the swamps and marshy regions at the mouth of the Mississippi River--particularly in Louisiana, particularly in the bayous and fisheries along the coast. But as bad as the oil spill was, it doesn't touch the damage done to the Gulf every year by what one expert in the book calls "a 100-year catastrophe."

Readers who believe they know the story of how the oil spill only compounded the damage done to an already vanishing Louisiana wetlands will find their worst fears more than realized. As author Jacobsen states, the height of the BP spill roughly equaled the amount of dispersant that flows down the Mississippi from the Heartland's dishwashers and washing machines; acres of marsh destroyed by oil slicks can't compare to the amount that disappears in every hurricane and incrementally each year under natural soil erosion. In essence, nothing can stop the coast of Louisiana from disappearing as soon--Jacobsen sets the timetable at 40 years or so--New Orleans and the rest of South Louisiana will be washed away with the tides.

This is a really depressing book. So much so that the author's substantial sympathy and admiration for the Gulf region gets mired in the overwhelming and ongoing tragedy affecting the area. Shadows on the Gulf reveals the BP oil spill in its entirety, explains why it will affect quality of life for us all and then goes on to remonstrate on the further problems compounding the issue. Jacobsen, a longtime journalist and ecological advocate not only explains why the Gulf's wetlands are important, he bolsters his argument for its conservation with the data that the region provides the best oyster reefs and fish nurseries in the world and proves critical habitat to most of America's migratory songbirds and waterfowl as well as a home base for the energy and shipping industries. If the Gulf fails, the drastic effects will ripple across America and ultimately the world. That it will fail is inevitable unless a national effort is made to save it. (508.76 JACOBSEN)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Other Kingdoms / by Richard Matheson

Alexander White goes by the pen name of Arthur Black. It's a publicity exercise of course--audiences of the type of dark horror fiction he writes would want an "A. Black" book, not an "A. White" novel. In his relatively successful career as a writer, all of his books have been fiction. But at 82, he now recalls a story that, though it is indeed stranger and more mystifying than all of his novels, is true--word for word. Born in Brooklyn in the year 1900, Alexander White was 18 when he finally broke free of his oppressive shackles at a home domineered by his autocratic father and joined the American Army in the trenches of World War I. There he met a soldier, a dying Englishman named Harold Lightfoot whose last words to Alexander were "keep away from the 'middle'".

Disturbed by his friend's mysterious epitaph and even more so when he discovers a sizeable golden nugget in his pack, Alexander sets off for Harold's home of Gadford to look for answers. He doesn't have to look far to find way more than he could have ever bargained for. When his search leads him to a small cottage where a woman named Magda lives, it is only the beginning as his life becomes ever more entwined with the life of a woman, a witch, and her dealings with the very peculiar yet very real "wee folk" of the forest. Matheson, known for his stellar horror novels like I Am Legend, Hell House and Stir of Echoes, merges into the world of fantasy in this sharply written tale of a man caught up in a world he could never have imagined. Much like more contemporary historical fantasy, near-history rather than ancient, Other Kingdoms weaves together a snapshot of twentieth century life, the ravages of the modern world with the ages old realm of myth and mysticism. Even readers only slightly familiar with fantasy will have no trouble grasping the plight and evolution of Alexander White, who recreates a time and a place certainly stranger and unfamiliar to our own, but which somehow seems very near and very recognizable all the same. (SF MATHESON)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

U.S.A. Trilogy / by John Dos Passos

Born in Chicago in 1896, John Dos Passos was the illegitimate son of his father John Dos Passos Sr., a prominent attorney of Portuguese ancestry. Following the death of John Sr.'s wife in 1910, he married John Jr's mother Agnes and acknowledged the younger Dos Passos as his biological son. Despite his somewhat irregular family situation, Dos Passos received a first rate education, boarding first at the Choate School then Harvard and ultimately studying abroad at the Sorbonne institute. Traveling extensively over the next few years, he met up and mingled with people all over the world including several widely-known American ex-pat writers living in Europe. His 1938 novel U.S.A., a trilogy describing the three decades between 1900 and 1930, is by far his most famous work and one of the most endearing descriptions of American history to be put into fictional form.
A new century dawns on the United States of America and with it a conflux of new people with new ideas, better machines and bigger buildings, different dynamics and deeper conflicts that are all configured together inside this "slice of a continent". For people like Fainy "Mac" McCreary, the first generation American son of Irish immigrants, it's a chance to get out and see the country apart from the east coast. For J. Ward Morehouse, the new century brings a wave of new business opportunities and the promise of prosperity. Excitement also finds Charlie Anderson of Fargo, North Dakota as he hops the rail and begins a nomadic life toward anywhere and everywhere, seeking for a job where he can work with his hands and a woman who'll love him. All the while, as individual lives come and go, America steadily creeps toward its destiny.

U.S.A. is unique among American novels, both for it's length, three full-size novels in all; its subject, three decades of history; and its depth of personal encounter where individual lives are illuminated to the reader. The novels which make up the trilogy--The 42nd Parallel, 1919 & The Big Money--create an unforgettable depiction of a still young country. Represented through a collective experience which spans all places, races, classes and backgrounds is a story about a place and a people who form a nation. Crucial to the plot are events, small and large, indirectly affecting the central characters (a cast of about 12 individuals in all) like the lingering presence World War I, job shortages and unionization as well as, in some cases like that of J.Ward Morehouse, the overwhelming surplus of opportunity and enterprise.

But one shouldn't think that because of its length and range of characters that U.S.A. requires a deep investment. Dos Passos masterpiece isn't a prudently serious novel; nor is it a conventional work where a diluted backstory must be trudged through to realize the plot. It's a funny book with sardonic humor and intermediary "updates" never far from the central narrative. The author uses several startlingly clever literary devices to capture the aura of early twentieth century life. With his "newsreels", he broadcasts the headlines and impressions upon the public conscience; in his "camera eye", he subtly incorporates a vague autobiographical soliloquy inside a stream-of-consciousness arrangement. Within the sweeping scope of the story are major historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford and Dale Carnegie as well as lesser known names now all but forgotten. To be sure there's a lot to the book. And it may take a reader some time to get through. But the point is never to vigilantly keep track of every detail. For as Dos Passos himself summarized, the book is "many things . . . but mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people". (FIC DOSPASSO)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit / by Sloan Wilson

In post-World War II America, Tom Rath is just another New York City businessman. His life revolves his job to which he commutes by train every morning, his wife Betsy and their three young children. As modest middle-class Americans, Tom and his family are just trying to make ends meet. So when an offer for a riskier but higher paying job comes his way, he takes it. The gamble pays off. Before long Tom catches the eye of his new boss Ralph Hopkins who wishes him to be his personal assistant, a prestigious but far more rigorous position meaning Tom will now have to choose between becoming a workaholic businessman or be just another 9-to-5-er who at least has time for his family. As he mulls his options, his homelife becomes more complicated. His only living relative, a grandmother, has died and left her estate home to Tom who now has to decide if he and his family should live on the property or accept the offer to sell the land as a potential housing project.

There's something else too. Even ten years later, the war is never far from Tom's thoughts. On his way to and from work, he reminisces about his harrowing combat experience as an Army paratrooper, the violence involved in killing enemy soldiers at close range and the loss of his best friend (partly of his own error). There's also a girl he knew in Rome, an Italian refugee named Maria, whom he'd had an affair with while on leave. When by chance he meets an old Army buddy and learns that Maria gave birth to his son after he left Italy, he must decide between keeping the love child a secret, hoping he can somehow forget about it, or letting his wife know and hope she'll understand. For Tom Rath, just another man on the street in a gray flannel suit, it seems like the entire world is held in the balance.

Penned in 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the quintissential 1950's story, one which entails the baby boom of the post war years, the suburbanization of American families, expanding American enterprise and the still lingering after effects of the war itself. Rath is a great character (Gregory Peck as Tom in the 1956 film version gave a sound performance). A man of admirable qualities, he's also plagued by many problems. Reading about Tom, the time and place he inhabits and the life which pulls him in so many different directions, creates intrigue about every aspect of the book right down to the peculiarly sad life of mega-mogul Ralph Hopkins. Here we see an individual feeling the grind of the corporate sinkhole, the decentralization of home and work, the burden of an ambitious wife and, not to be sold short, the first real problems confronting American veterans in quite some time. The book is a solid snapshot of an American decade more associated with conformity and standardization than indecision and uncertainty. Touching on the kind of America Updike would depict a decade later, it is one which brilliantly concentrates all of the trials and inadequacies, the ambiguity and suspicion inherent in post-war life into one identifiable character and condition. (FIC WILSON)

Peter Pan's personal soundtrack

Yesterday, Flavorwire posted an entry on their blog imagining the songs on Peter Pan's iPod (or mixtape, for all of you who remember such things). Take a look here and see if you agree.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Love Shrinks: A Memoir Of A Marriage Counselor's Divorce / by Sharyn Wolf

So what happens when the experts fail? If professionals can't get the job done, what's to become of the rest of us? In the past few years licensed psychotherapist Sharyn Wolf has been a media mainstay on shows like "Oprah", "The View" and the "Today Show Live". Her target area of expertise: advice for married couples. She's also authored a series of bestselling books offering advice on how to build a successful marriage and maintain cohesion between the spouses. So it came as something of a surprise to her many fans and millions of viewers that her own marriage of 15 years had ended in divorce. Even more disturbing was the fact that the union had been a failure for quite some time, practically a self-submerging pit from which the author never thought she'd get out of.

Things had been bad for nearly a decade for the two smart and talented people (both Wolf and her husband are professionals as well as performing musicians) who likened their marriage to being "locked together" in a prison. Wolf, ever the psychoanalyst, delves into why things went the way they did. Despite her husband's frequent sentiments of devotion, his fidelity and seemingly good health, it seems he just didn't get Sharyn. He never read her books, never escorted her to parties or her various speaking engagements, never quite displayed enough open affection; he took too long to make essentially mundane choices, carelessly made serious decisions without her input and, not necessarily his fault but damaging to their relaitionship all the same, experienced an unexpected and drastic drop-off in virility.

As much of the book muses on the effects of the author's shortcomings as her spouse's. "Girls like me stay in bad relationships because we don't want to upset anyone." (xvii). So she claims about her childhood-inspired desire to not be seen as a hassle. Her tentative behavior and frequent fear of comprimise helped her stay miserable as the marriage dragged on. Intermittently she offers anecdotes about clients and patients she's counseled over the years, weaving together their own private misgivings with her own sense of inferiority. Wolf can write well enough and authentically enough, but at times her insights, honest as they are, just seem a little too scattered to offer up a sound resolution or satisfying conclusion. The story of the doomed marriage becomes a little too bogged down amid Wolf's tangents and sidenotes. But this isn't a bad memoir and many readers will identify with the author's candid approach to her frankly humiliating circumstances.  (306.893092 WOLF) 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A crime novel for those who prefer their crime with a bit of humor

Metzger's Dog: A NovelMetzger's Dog: A Novel by Thomas Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was originally written in 1983, and it is still funny. It is a crime fiction/spy fiction/caper/humor book. Dr. Henry Metzger of the title is clearly the smartest and most self-assured character in the book. He is the main character's cat, and yes, he does have his own dog. A giant, drooling, junkyard dog. The main character, Chinese Gordon, is the brains and leader of a group of good-hearted criminals who have decided, through a circuitous chain of events, to blackmail the CIA. While Chinese is the brains of his gang of crooks, his girlfriend, Margaret is clearly the brains behind Chinese. She is delightfully slinky and smart. There aren't too many brains to speak of on the CIA side, with the exception of one old-guard operative who isn't, unfortunately, at the top of the CIA food chain.

Perry's writing has that rollicking, noirish, tough-guy quality that you sometimes find in Elmore Leonard's dialogue. The plot is serpentine, the protagonists are unfailingly cool, and I was halfway through the book before it occurred to me that that technology was way outdated for this to be a contemporary book (I know, librarians are supposed to figure this stuff out faster -- duh). I was impressed that the book has stood the test of time so well. In the audiobook version, Carl Hiaasen provides an intro that I would advise skipping. I highly recommend the book in its original version, though, for a fun, irreverent read.

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A guy to inspire you

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger'sLook Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Elder Robison is Augusten Burroughs' older brother. While I didn't love Running with scissors, I was inspired to pick up this book after cataloging Robison's most recent effort, Be different: adventures of a free-range Aspergian, with practical advice for Aspergians, misfits, families & teachers. That one caught my interest because it is a book about Asperger's that is actually directed to folks with Asperger's (or Aspergians, in Robison's lingo). His memoir covers different ground than his brother's book. There is a significant age difference in the brothers, plus Robison's status as an Aspergian gives him a much different take on life and his surroundings than his non-Aspergian sibling.

The writing is a little choppy, but after a bit I got used to the flow of it and I think the funny rhythm actually ultimately helped me to understand how Robison thinks. He is surprisingly funny in an extremely deadpan way. Despite his unusual way of expressing himself, Robison is very self-aware. I found this book to be quite inspiring, in a very non-Lifetime television special kind of way. Robison had a rough time as a kid and an adolescent, between his crazy parents and his Aspergian personality. He did not succeed in the normal ways early in life, but he somehow didn't let that discourage him from pursuing his natural talents and he ended up becoming a successful human being anyway. He is not the same as most of the other folks in his life, but he seems to be okay with that. Very cool.

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Friday, May 20, 2011


BBC The Office (DVD) 2001-2003 / a Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant production; starring Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis

David Brent likes to think of himself as a friend first and boss second ("probably an entertainer third"). As regional manager of the Slough branch of the Wernham-Hogg paper merchants where the BBC are currently shooting a documentary, David lets it be known that he likes a workplace where people can "have a laugh at work whilst getting the job done" because of course "you can't put a price on comedy". But though he believes everyone thinks he's hilarious and great fun to be around, it's obvious office employees find him utterly unfunny, rude and frequently offensive--opinions to which he remains largely oblivious in spite of his generally attention-grabbing habits. Observed regularly is Brent's consistent need to be recognized as a worldly renaissance man skilled in many areas, most particularly humor where he believes himself to be a remarkably funny comedian even though his material is invariably unoriginal, usually consisting of poor impressions and worn-out routines borrowed from old TV shows. Also ever-conscious of the cameras throughout the documentary, Brent rarely misses an opportunity to promote himself, seeming especially keen to be depicted as a progressive-minded, politically correct individual despite the fact he often directs derogatory comments at minorities, the disabled and the third world poor. His frequent faux-pas, always awkward and cringe-inducing, are rarely ill-intended however; rather they're derived from extreme ignorance and a tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, incidents usually exascerbated by inept attempts at a follow-up apology.

Brent's high need for affirmation and bad practical joking (in front of a new employee he pretends to fire his secretary for supposedly stealing post-it notes bringing her to tears) is only eclipsed by the sycophantic, slightly neurotic habits of Gareth Keenan. A sales clerk and assistant (to the) regional manager who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with workplace rules, Gareth never fails to volunteer his services for generally thankless duties. Also a former soldier, Gareth believes (falsely) that his military background and self-assumed titles like being "team leader" give him authority over his coworkers, most notably Tim Canterbury his deskmate, who simply refuses to acknowledge any percieved authority Gareth claims to have. Disillusioned with life and bored at work, Tim, a sales rep, gets a kick out of poking fun at Gareth's eccentricities and juvenile hang-ups through equally juvenile hijinks like putting a stapler inside jello, prank-calling his gun-holstered cellphone and building a dividing wall out of cardboard boxes. One person who can't help laughing at Tim's little jokes and his all-around fun-loving nature is receptionist Dawn Tinsley who's only working a Wernham Hogg because her fiance Lee works in the warehouse. The other employees simply take things day by day, awkwardly enduring David Brent's incorrigible antics and hoping things get better.

There are several reasons why this is THE GREATEST TELEVISION SERIES EVER. The main one is Ricky Gervais, whose late 1990's vision to create a new type of anti-convention sitcom comedy was and remains something of an extraordinary triumph. Together with associate producer and writing partner Stephen Merchant, the pair held firmly to their goal of creating a TV series unlike any other--a show devoted to the wholly inconspicuous humor of the pathetic. The funniest jokes as well as the most poignant bits in "The Office" are never recognized as such on camera; not even so much as a hint of this-is-the-joke-we're-doing-now is ever conveyed for viewer enlightenment. Nor do the supporting scenes attempt to supply any context. The almost cinema verité approach to observing the monotonous drone of everyday life in the most accurate type of fly-on-the-wall, unobtrusive manner is sublimely one of the most rewarding aspects of the show (and something you would never see on American television). Another very crucial reason for the show's sustained notoriety is the talent. "The Office" would not have succeeded the way it did without the supporting cast--specifically and exclusively Martin Freeman and McKenzie Crook. Both virtual unknowns at the time of filming, they're no longer a secret--Freeman especially whose portrayal of Tim, the proverbial 'everyman', is one of the precious few gems of television acting done right. Providing an almost alter-ego to Gervais' David Brent, the character of Tim is masterfully illuminated as the piece's rational center, ultimately balancing the show's edgy humor with enough sincerity to realize every aspect of the series' intentions. The show's run, done entirely within 14 concise episodes, is truly a masterpiece (and if you have to ask why it didn't run longer, you've missed the point entirely). Never can it be duplicated; nor should it have been replicated or imitated with such watered-down, tasteless knock-offs. (DVD OFFICE)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics / by John Pollack

Ever heard that "to write with a broken pencil is pointless"? How about that "when fish are in schools they sometimes take debate" or that "a criminal's best asset is his lie ability"? Always "be true to your teeth or they will be false to you" and "you'll feel stuck with your debt if you can't budge it". For as long as puns have been around, people have been telling each other achingly bad jokes like back when "ancient orators tended to babylon" or "when backwards poets wrote inverse". But some people think the pun as more than just the lowest form of humor. Author of this delightfully groan-worthy book on the history of puns, former Clinton speechwriter and winner of the O'Henry Pun-Off John Pollack believes that "punning" virtually revolutionalized language and has been instrumental in the integration and development of modern civilization.

The pun is more than just a lame (pun)ch line, something history testifies to. From the ancient Egyptians whose heiroglyphics attest to the humorous double-meaning symbols to the French wits of the 17th century, puns have always been at the forefront of exposition and repartee. In the English language particularly, the Norman Conquest diversified the vocabulary to a point that by Elizabethan times, "the play upon words was not merely an elegance of style and a display of wit; it was also an means of emphasis and an instrument of persuasion" (p. 63). The art of the pun is, even today, still a worthy tool for any wannabe wordsmythes, encouraging the broad and cross-cultural use of words to communicate intelligence. Because of its utility, puns are a universally acknowledged currency for any format of both oral and written correspondence and almost any type of social interaction, even texting. Pollack says that the pun will never die. Moreover, it will continue to proliferate as a low-brow gag and a device to be infused during the most proper of conversations. No matter what, it will always be more than just 'some antics'. (808.7 POLLACK) 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Imperfectionists / by Tom Rachman

In 1953, visionary Atlanta businessman Cyrus Ott has a seemingly crazy idea: establish an English-language newspaper in Rome. The risky though potentially rewarding endeavour is eventually agreed upon as Cyrus partners with his hand-selected editors, Betty, a former girlfriend, and her current husband Leo, to begin the life of the International Herald Tribune. Soon the paper grows from scrappy independent publication into one of Europe's most tastefully subjective independent news sources. Over the next five decades, the Tribune informs and entertains a growing number of subscribers, confronts fluctuating international issues faced by Americans abroad and becomes as recognized for its quirky employees as its provocatively off-the-wall content.

Now in the waining days of news print, as the internet threatens to bring about the end, the staff must face down the inevitable while dealing with their own individual concerns and problems. Editor-in-chief Kathleen, still dealing with her husband's recent infidelity, handles the task of managing her dwindling cast of employees who include Arthur, a lazy obituary writer dealing with his own very recent. personal loss. Meanwhile staff HR head and chief financial officer Abby discovers that some of the people she's having to fire include her secret lover and field correspondent Douglas still seeks more earth-shattering headlines, going to some pretty desperate lengths to get story. As the day of the print news coming to an end, this 'imperfect' crew of drifters and ex-pats, exiles and misfits, faces an uncertain future. As the paper's rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder's intentions, so to are its future plans inevitably played out as the successors of the Mr. Ott's once unique idea now caretake on his crumbling vision. Released to critical and public acclaim in 2010, The Imperfectionists is a really, really good book. (FIC RACHMAN)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Of Gods and Men (DVD) directed by Xavier Beauvois

The DVD for this film will be released in the United States this coming July. The film is made in French, with English subtitles. It is based on the true story of a group of French Trappist monks at a monastery in Algeria, whose lives were threatened by Muslim extremists in 1996.

Massacres of civilians took place in Algeria, a former French colony, from 1994 to 1999. Intellectuals, journalists, foreigners and those exhibiting westernized conduct (such as women unveiled) – they were all included as targets in the war between Algeria’s military government and Islamic rebels. The majority of those killed, however, were simply villagers who were perceived as supporters of the hated regime, or as those who refused to join the rebel movement. Some testimony has emerged that the police and the army as well were infiltrated by the rebels, since both exhibited failure to protect citizens or to pursue the murderers and rapists. The possibility of government-instigated attacks has been raised as well, orchestrated to exonerate their own harsh tactics against civilians and to further tarnish the rebels’ reputation. While our press did not single out these events, it was a black time for Algeria and for France as well.

The film is not a violent one, although we witness the deaths of some foreign workers, and feel the danger posed by the rebels to the villagers and to the monks. There are seven monks at the monastery, joined at the film’s end by one more who returns from a journey. The first seven men we get to know slowly, seeing them at their tasks - gardening and harvesting, studying and reading, visiting the Muslim villagers and treating their sick. All these activities surround their religious occupation of prayer and celebrating mass. They sing the mass and the prayers, and this chanting is almost the only music in the film. Their lives are presented as a seamless whole – moving from work and study to the repose of contemplation, swiftly yet without haste donning their habit over their work clothes, ready to worship and to receive their God.

Caught between departing to save their skins and staying to be brutally murdered, the monks differ in how they see their situation and what they believe they ought to do. Acknowledging the risk of staying, their prior states that no outside authority has the right to make their decision for them, even though the government is begging them to leave. What becomes clear is how close they are to the villagers after so many years, and how abandoned the people would feel if the monks left. The monks’ fate is riveting as they wrestle with their decision, each in his own way struggling alone, yet bound with the others in the stillness and immensity of their shared vocation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Society of Others (AD) / by William Nicholson; read by Glen McReady

In England, an unnamed young man no longer sees the point of anything. Everything is worthless, "all a wash" he muses from his room where he no longer leaves his bed. His mother and father care enough to at least take an interest in their son's issues, supplying him with the necessary funds to get by and leaving him alone for the most part. They do give advice though, not ill-natured but generally unsolicited enought until it finally does become too irritating. In a spur of the moment decision, the choice to get away is immediatley undertaken in unplanned and unpremeditated fashion.

Aimlessly hitchhiking along the road until he's picked up by a trucker heading for the channel tunnel, the protagonist sets off on his journey not knowing (or caring) about his destination. The adventure gets along fine for a little while. But when the truck driver, an odd fellow who peddles his own brand of muddled philosophy to the protagonist, is pulled over in a former eastern bloc country, things suddenly get very strange. The truck is captured and set ablaze by armed guerilla-styled men who capture the protagonist and his driver, confiscate their belongings and actually accuse the protagonist of committing murder. But that's only the beginning as the plot deepens into an ever-widening story of faith, allegiance, conspiracy and complicit dealings.

Author William Nicholson, also the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the blockbuster movie Gladiator, brilliantly pulls off this interesting novel focusing on free will, individual choices and the lives we make for ourselves. With gentle humor, wonderfully wry aplomb and lucid candor, The Society of Others is a bit of an off-the-wall book, very Kafka-esque in its own way positioning individual reason against institutional irrationality and repressive politics. Cynical ramblings by the anonymous protagonist add surprising weight to the novel's dreamlike atmosphere and detached mood, altogether offering up an entertaining story on the importance of human connection and worthwhile relationships. Of course the oral narrative of this, the audiobook, is enhanced by reader Glen McCready who more than manages the narrator's dour, nihilistic complex and lends admirable credibility to the supporting characters. This book is definitely better than OK and firmly satisfactory right up until the end. (AD FIC NICHOLSO)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Attachments / by Rainbow Rowell

In the early days of the internet, Beth and Jennifer are two co-workers who've just discovered the joys of e-mailing. Even though they've been warned that the company they work for monitors their computer activity, including email communications, the two fun-loving newspaper employees spend all day sending each other nonsense messages, gossiping about their coworkers and arguing about who has the lamest personal life. Lincoln, the network administrator for the company, and defacto internet security officer, can't help but be amused by this correspondence which he's supposed to be perusing for red flag material. Sort of an electronic Peeping Tom, he finds himself becoming engrossed in the pair's perky but harmless back-and-forths, especially when he starts finding himself the subject of their messages. But by the time Lincoln realizes he's falling for Beth, who he's seen a handful of times in passing, it's a bit late for honest encounters.

Attachments is an OK book, basically one that plays the cuteness factor all the way to the bank. The humor, or what the characters think is humor, gets sort of old after the first few chapters and some readers may grow impatient with both protagonists. There's also some unlikely coincidences which attempt to forward the plot but really just delay the inevitable. Very, very imitative of the You've Got Mail movie from that era (circa 1998), knowledgeable readers will be pretty much up to speed on what the end will look like well before the last third of the story. Rowell, a lifestyle columnist for the Omaha World-Herald, writes credible dialogue and description but her characters just aren't very believable and circumstances seem too fixed and manipulated for the story to be taken seriously. The book will find an audience with readers wanting another office-style/workplace comedy. (FIC ROWELL)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Natural Disaster Fiction

City of Refuge: A Novel / by Tom Piazza
In the steamy heat of late summer, two New Orleans families, each from different backgrounds make preparations as Hurricane Katrina approaches. SJ Williams, a self-employed carpenter and widower, lives in the city's Lower Ninth Ward with his sister and nephew while across town Craig Donaldson, a midwestern transplant lured by the city's music and culture, faces deepening cracks in his own family who want to move back to Minnesota. But the hurricane’s arrival is only the beginning as each family struggles to come to terms with the reality of lives uprooted. (FIC PIAZZA)

Blown Away / by Sharon Sala
When Cari North stumbles across her ex-fiance Lance Morgan digging a grave in the swampy Louisiana woods, she knows something’s not quite right. Now suspecting the truth, that Lance may have murdered someone, Cari flees the scene only to encounter a tornado spawned by a hurricane right in her path. Just when she thinks she's home free, Cari finds that the storm has swept in another twist of fate, one that will change her fate--forever. This is the first book in Sala’s “Storm Front” series. (FIC SALA)

Deep Freeze / by Thom Racina
Only the most unusual of natural disasters could disrupt the normally unremitting course of daily activity in Southern California, a place which is, after all, used to routine floods, mudslides, earthquakes, brush fires, even swarms of Africanized Honeybees. But a winter storm of mass proportions does that, making roads impassable, freezing swimming pools into blocks of ice and generally creating a frenzied atmosphere bordering on mayhem for all sectors of society. (FIC RACINA)

Avalanche: A Sheriff Bo Tully Mystery / by Patrick F. McManus
When luxury ski lodge owner Mike Wilson goes missing, Blight County (ID) Sheriff Bo Tully suspects that Wilson is probably just off on another fling. But, doing his duty, Tully drives up to the lodge anticipating an easy missing persons case only to meet an oncoming avalanche head-on. Now stuck at the lodge, after having just barely made it safe inside, Tully finds there may be more to Mike’s disappearance than he originally thought. (MYS MCMANUS)

One Amazing Thing / by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Nine strangers are caught together in a passport and visa office one afternoon when a violent earthquake rips through area, trapping all of them inside. As the office begins to flood and the struggle for survival becomes intensified, all begin to share pieces of themselves, emotionally uplifting tidbits from their own lives to life morale. As their surprising stories of love, loss and self-revelation unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression helps them cope with time running out. (FIC DIVAKARU)

Acts of Nature / by Jonathon King
Private Eye Max Freeman and his girlfriend, Detective Sherry Richards have relocated to the Florida Everglades to be much needed R&R. It's the kind of life they've looked forward to for a while with no TV, no phones, no neighbors. But with the arrival of a devastating hurricane, more than just their little piece of paradise is uprooted as Sherry is severely injured and with no means of calling for help, the couple begins a treacherous trip back to civilization only to run in to some thoroughly undesirable characters who've been uprooted as well. (MYS KING)
Ark / by Stephen Baxter
In the not-so-distant future, life on planet earth lies on the brink of extinction after a massive flood submerged nearly everything. In a last ditch attempt to secure the survival of mankind, two specially designed space crafts, Ark One and Ark Two, have been designed to transport survivors to another life-sustaining planet many light years away. Holle Groundwater is one of the chosen few who've been trained since childhood for destiny and is finally ready to embark on her destiny when she uncovers a secret revealing that escaping earth may be a more dangerous task than remaining behing on a drowning planet. (SF BAXTER)