Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fizzics: The Science of Bubbles, Droplets & Foams / by F. Ronald Young

Ever wonder why the head on some drinks takes forever to dissipate? Or why some fire extinguishers shoot mostly foam? It's all to do with bubbles and droplets and the "fizzics" behind what makes them so fascinating. This book describes in very plain-language fashion the compelling behavior of these seemingly simple phenomenon. Revealed are the secrets of bubbles. Young explores collections of these simple naturally occurring, everyday forms, of how a metallic foam might save the planet, and the never-ending quest for the perfect beer. Also explained is why coffee rings form and exactly how a detergent gets dishes clean. How have humans put bubbles to use?  In a lot more ways than you might think. Whether through industrial refining technology, nuclear science or in medical processes (cleaning wounds with hydrogen peroxide, sodium carbonate and other chemical properties), this is more than a book that explains science. It is a love letter written to sing the praises of the bubble, and can be read by the bright middle schooler on upward (530.4275 YOUNG).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cry of the Owl / by Patricia Highsmith

Born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, author Patricia Highsmith lived for much of her youth in New York City enduring the kind of emotionally unstable childhood which carries over into adulthood. Her parents divorced ten days after Highsmith was born and her mother, also named Mary, was someone Patricia would come to loathe, even penning a short story vaguely inferencing her murder. Though well-housed and cared for by her maternal grandmother, Highsmith never new her artist father and didn't get along with her stepfather. After graduating from Barnard with a degree in English, she scripted comic strips before becoming a full-time writer. Her debut novel Strangers On A Train was modest success upon its 1950 publication but became a blockbuster a year later with the release of Alfred Hitchcock's movie adaptation. Her newfound stardom allowed Highsmith to travel extensively in Europe throughout the 1950's and she permanently relocated to Switzerland in 1963. Though a well-published writer throughout her career, highly praised by all critics as a gifted psychological storyteller with a knack for portraying misfit protagonist and a skill as much for the macabre as satire, Patricia Highsmith was, by most accounts, a tortured soul. Difficult to be with, live with and work with, she's known as much for her cantankerousness and reclusive habits as for her literary achievements. Her 1962 book Cry of the Owl is a strange, disturbing tale of a recently divorced man's compulsion towards a voyeuristic relationship with his much younger neighbor.

"Want a nice piece of firewood as a bludgeon or something?"

In the small Pennsylvania town of Langley, Robert Forrester lives alone after having been through a particularly nasty divorce. Though his job as an aerospace engineer keeps him going, it's not enough to help recuperate him psychologically and leaves him restless most of the time. Driving home one night he spots a beguiling young woman outside her home. Drawn by her attractive features and placid demeanor, Robert begins to watch her nightly through her kitchen window from the relative safety of the nearby woods. When he's caught one night, the girl, Jenny Thierolf, is surprisingly friendly to him, accommodating his clumsy excuses and asking him inside. When her fiance Greg arrives, Robert politely excuses himself believing the dalliance to be over. But it isn't. Robert finds that he can't keep himself away. More peculiarly, Jenny seems to accessible to the idea of being close friends with Robert, even to the point of breaking off her engagement to Greg. Unsure of what to do, Robert finds himself confused and panicking, a condition leading ever more deeper into treacherous circumstances.

Highsmith wrote a lot of books, many along the same creepy lines as this one. There's a sense of familiarity about her characters which you don't get with other similar works of fiction, a connection to the deeper nature which can be a bit unsettling. To say that Cry of the Owl is a suspense would be correct but it's also something of an experimental piece, a novel about people, all of them a little creepy, who aren't so concerned with the moral compass in life as they are with the pathology of their own individual choices. French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol made the first movie of the novel in 1967 and in 2009, a new adaptation starring Julia Stiles and Paddy Considine was released. Neither film really quite captures the eerie-ness factor which Highsmith was able to manifest with her cleverly plotted style. It wouldn't be to far off to say that the author herself more than resonated with these characters. She had enough of her own personally hindering psychosis, a reason her books were so strikingly brilliant and successful. Highsmith was named the greatest crime novelist of all time by The Times (UK) in 2008. (MYS HIGHSMIT)

Monday, July 25, 2011

The End of Everything / by Megan Abbott

There has never been a time that 13-year-olds Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver weren't best friends. Nextdoor neighbors, in the same class at school and always in the same clubs and sports teams, they've been inseparable their entire lives. So when Evie suddenly disappears one day without a trace, it goes without saying that Lizzie is more than a little devastated. No one can think of a reason why anyone would want to kidnap or harm Evie. But is there? Evie's disappearance has coincided with another disappearance, that of Mr. Harold Shaw, a neighbor and parent from up the street. Days then weeks pass by and it becomes obvious that this is more than just a coincidence. Lizzie too starts to put the missing pieces together of her own puzzle together, recalling subtle hints and vague clues to how such a thing could have culminated. As the mystery continues without much evidence, it provides Lizzie with an odd and very curious opportunity to reflect on just how the bond of friendship can promote a trust which conceals hidden secrets.

Abbott, author of the Edgar nominated Bury Me Deep about a peculiar depression-era crime, takes an odd angle here with a shocking but not-all-that-uncommon story told in first person by the victim's best friend. It works well enough although some part linger a little too long on less important material and not enough attention is given to other, seemingly more pertinent aspects of the story--why Lizzie's own father left for one and accounting for Evie's real relationship with her older sister Dusty. Sometimes Lizzie's little revelations and discoveries aren't as authentic as they come across--possibly what Abbott intended--and at times there's a little too much melodrama driving the narrative. Attempting with the semi-reliable narration by the young protagonist to reveal a child 'growing up' through a crisis is a solid concept and the author displays her keen insight and intuition. Yet it's hard to dismiss the fact that most of Lizzie's personal growth comes not from her own inner voice and self-analysis but from interpersonal encounters with other characters, namely Dusty and Mr. Shaw's only son Pete, storylines which may be a bit too marginalized. (FIC ABBOTT)

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Having finally finished all four of the books making up the Quartet, I have a new understanding of Paul Scott’s final take on the British dominion of India. The action of the four books takes place between 1942 and 1947. In 1942 the Indian Congress first issued a motion for the British to leave, and in 1947 the British did just that. Scott tells his story through interweaving personal accounts, diaries, letters and reports of people playing major or minor roles in India –British commanders and their families, proprietors of shops, factories and newspapers, Indian soldiers in the British army, spies, police and ambassadors – the list goes on. Scott knew his India, having been posted to India for three years as a supply officer, and was able to visit India again in 1964, before writing the Raj Quartet. He wrote the four books over a roughly ten year period, with the last published in 1975, just three years before his death at the age of 57.

There is direct action within the accounts as well. Scott’s technique of providing us with documents written by characters in the story can make for slow reading, but faithful attention to details and nuance is amply rewarded by the outcome of a story with depth and resonance. Some critics have complained that they feel lectured to at times with Scott’s detailed elucidation of history. The characters are fictitious, of course, but they exist on a canvas of real events. Indian national figures like Gandhi, Nehru and Pakistan’s Jinnah are seen in the background, through the characters’ perceptions.

The characters themselves are alive and multi-dimensional. Unlike E.M. Forster’s novel “A Passage to India”, the British who are in India are presented sympathetically, even when their presumptions about India and Indians are derogatory and unfeeling. Somehow you see how they got there – most particularly in the character of Ronald Merrick, a villain who sees the bottom line of race that is Empire, and uses this perception for self-advancement. But was the British Empire – the Raj, as it was called in India, really based on racism? There are British commanders who inspire loyalty in their Indian recruits, with their Memsahib British wives going out to visit the Indian soldiers’ families in a gesture of underlying solidarity. There are Indian servants who have lived with an English family their whole lives, and have a closeness that is genuine. Does the closeness, where it exists, come simply from the spirituality and depth of the Indian?

Throughout the books Scott shows how the Indian landscape pervades everywhere - the vastness of the plains, the wildness of the hill country. It is this landscape that the children of Britain came to, and took it as their own, so that hereafter English vistas seemed too constricted, not answering to their increased appetite for scope and richness in their daily lives. Reading the Raj Quartet gave me a picture of how the Empire grasped India, tried to form it, and then let go – so that the disparity of India’s peoples – particularly the Hindus and the Muslims – could only express itself in disarray, with helpless violence. That violence and enmity continues today, in the legacy of Pakistan, an exterior solution to an interior dilemma.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bad Boys (DVD) 1983 / a film by Rick Rosenthal; starring Sean Penn, Reni Santoni & Jim Moody


"I killed your little brother. But he's dead because you didn't look after him."

In gangland Chicago, Mick O'Brien is a teenage hood pulling off petty crimes. He aspires to bigger things though and, in a pinch, he decides to get into the drug trade, he and a friend making the decision to ripoff a rival thug named Paco. Everything goes wrong though. The realization of a deal gone bad causes guns to be pulled and shots to be fired. Unhurt initially, Mick flees the scene in his car only to run over and kill an 8-year-old boy who just happens to be Paco's little brother. Soon picked up by the police, Mick is sent to the Rainford Juvenile Corrections Facility, a place, not unsurprisingly, that's neither 'juvenile' nor 'correctional'. Rather it's a place where under-18 delinquents learn to become tougher, angrier criminals and where only the most ruthless survive. The wardens and counselors, with the kids all day everyday, care little about the zoo-like atmosphere, having adapted to the inhumane conditions and accepted their role as passive caretakers. Meanwhile on the outside, Paco has avenged his little brother's death at the hands of Mick by attacking and raping Mick's girlfriend, an event soon landing Paco himself in the same facility as Mick.

Before 'Bad Boys' was a Will Smith blockbuster (w/ sequel), before "Cops" thrust the Bob Marley song of the same name into mainstream popularity and long before Sean Penn was, well, Sean Penn, there was the little-known and lesser-viewed low budget film Bad Boys. This is a very good movie. Maybe not great but still admirable for its spot-on acting and wisely uncensored direction by first-timer Rick Rosenthal. Seen here are not the juvenile delinquent cliches of West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause or even the recent Gridiron Gang, a film which ironically featured the same basic scenario but none of the credibility. There's an almost uncanny realism about this film, an unadulterated, voyeuristic vision of unchecked mayhem and institutional failure. No one sympathizes with any of these kids, and there's no real redemption for any of them. They're doomed already. For theirs is a world of perpetual confrontation and imminent violence where having your guard up all the times goes without saying and scores to settle are never far away. Any semblance of an ordered. peaceable society is lost inside the reformatory walls. Of course there are things about Bad Boys which aren't so great, like the lacking production standards and noticeably predictable ending. But even compared to most 'adult' prison movies, this film approaches the truth better than most. The sense of hopelessness and despair, of repressed fear and the awakening of the animal instinct is never lost on the viewer who feels the discomfort immediately and senses the menacing, almost evil circumstances from beginning to end. To be sure, there's a lion's share of emotionally rigorous content. But it's worth it. (DVD BAD) 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Sorcerer's House / by Gene Wolfe

Neil Gaiman has said of Science Fiction & Fantasy author Gene Wolfe that "He's my hero because he keeps trying new ways of writing...and [is] the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer. Most people haven't heard of him. And that doesn't bother Gene in the slightest. He just gets on with writing the next book." (Gaiman, Guardian 2011). Born in Brooklyn in 1931, Wolfe's family moved around quite a bit before finally settling in Houston, a place which became his hometown and where he's always considered himself to be "from". He attended Texas A & M for three years before dropping out after he was drafted into the military where he served as a GI in the Korean War. Upon returning, he enrolled at the University of Houston where he completed his degree in Industrial Engineering and worked in the petrochemical field for thirty years, even helping to publish the Plant Engineering journal. Also of note is the fact that he helped patent the machine which makes Pringles potato chips(*). A full-time novelist since 1970, he's won pretty much every genre award there is, several of them multiple times. Perhaps his most revered work, the multi-volume The Book of the New Sun, garnered seven individual literary awards and was nominated for a dozen more. A (mostly) complete bibliography of all his writings can be found hereand it is indeed quite an extensive list. His 2010 novel The Sorcerer's House follows a newly released ex-con who learns that he's just inherited a strange, uninhabited old house.

Upon being released from prison, Baxter "Bax" Dunn wants to be in a place where no one knows him. He resettles in the midwestern town of Medicine Man where he stays in a shady motel, passing the time writing letters to his former cellmate along with a few old friends and family members. In a sudden, odd turn of events, he crosses paths with a real estate agent who tells him that he's the heir to a old vacant house in town. The large and spacious house, quite a spooky and mysterious old mansion, has been empty for quite some time. Bax moves in and is almost immediately subjected by a myriad of supernatural occurrences. Strange mystical creatures, objects magically moving and a discovery of another world beyond our own all confront Bax as his life is literally transformed by the house. By and by, Bas learns of the history of the mysterious house and its dangerous past, about the previous inhabitants and its sorcerer caretaker Mr. Black. Soon he becomes embroiled into a present (and a past) he never could have planned upon.

Brilliant and terrifying, this book is another masterpiece of fiction by an author who transcends the boundaries of genre and form to create another fantastic tale. Wolfe's unforgettable world and his piquant voice evoked through the epistolary testimony of Bax is a real treat and perfectly rendered. From trying to survive as a penniless ex-con to experiencing a windfall of bizarre proportions, Bax is a character who, more than anything, just goes with the flow. Though his life is often endangered and his psyche threatened by the outrageous events he witnesses, the reader gets to know a character who could fit well in any type of genre fiction or even in a more realistic piece of generic storytelling. Bax is a smart man, he's earned his Ph.D. while incarcerated, and isn't one to rationally dismiss things nor is he one for wishing on the fantastical. And while the rest of the characters are mostly seen through Bax' eyes, depicted indirectly through his narration, the style and pacing of the novel are cleverly arranged. There's an unpredictable zany style to The Sorcerer's House, a flow of non-stop action and amusing narrative bits that start fast and continue till the end. Even when Bax thinks that the major revelations are discovered and the major confrontations established, the novel takes even more surprising twists and turns to his peril--and our delight. (SF WOLFE)


Friday, July 15, 2011

HBO boosts book sales (again) with latest book-TV series

With their latest foray into fantasy, HBO's "Game of Thrones", based on author George R.R. Martin's epic novels, was nominated for an Emmy for best drama series on Thursday. The author's series itself is titled A Song of Ice and Fire, of which Dance with Dragons (SF MARTIN) is the fifth of what will likely be seven or eight total volumes. "Game of Thrones" has not only renewed interest in the books, it has made Martin the latest celebrity author on a level rarely seen by writers--J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham, Stephenie Meyer are a few exceptions--as was witnessed only a few days ago at an author book signing in NYC. You can read about it here in this article and see what Martin himself thinks of his success.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother / by Allison Pearson

Kate Reddy has to work very hard to keep her life how she wants it. A hedge-fund manager for one of London's leading brokerage firms, she's also a wife to a loving husband, also a corporate executive, and mother to two small beautiful but sometimes bratty children. That her mind is forever toggling between accounts, deadlines, foreign clients and bake sale cookies, show-and-tell projects and doctor's check-ups is a given. But she's someone who can do it. She's not like her friends (quitters) who've forsaken the rat race for homemaking and are no longer the 'friends' they used to be. And while she misses out on a few details here or there and might have bypass small engagements or miss a recital in the course of a work week, Kate feels she devotes the attention she needs to each facet of her world. Of course there are times when she truly hates her life, her husband and her kids (who are in the care part-time nanny much of the day, but still) for their very existence. Yet overall she needs the stress and, in a strange way, she likes the challenge and will readily admit to not imagining doing anything else.

So this book has kind of the same exact story as countless others already weighing down the shelves--modern working woman dramatizes her issues. But Pearson, author of I Think I Love You about pop culture-addict teenagers in the seventies, entertains her audience with some fairly humorous anecdotes and add-ons ("Any working mother who says she doesn't bribe her kids can add Liar to her résumé."; or, when speaking of her daughter's reaction to her out-of-town business trips, "Mummy's return is always a cue for an intricate sequence of snubs and punishments."). At least for a little while. Unfortunately Kate's narrative is only amusing for so long as the reader gets to know her character--a headstrong but vulnerable, resourceful yet forgetful, devoted though libertine twenty-first century woman--because the story doesn't really offer any kind of change-up. Things bog down a little in the second half by which time Kate's little introspections seem more like whining than gibing and her oh-so-busy-and-hectic life ceases to impress anyone. (FIC PEARSON)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays / by Zadie Smith

Even for an accomplished writer and scholar, Zadie Smith, English author of the award-winning White Teeth and the later novel On Beauty, is quite a literary aficionado. She's also quite culturally aware, having reviewed movies for the Guardian newspaper earlier in her career and possessing an instinct for connecting art and society. With a reading backlog of literally thousands of classic fiction masterpieces, read and re-read dozens of times--take her essay on Eliot's Middlemarch for example--Smith is truly a reader's writer while at the same time a peer-approved scholar, elucidating what the concept of an author's work represents. Her latest non-fiction foray into essay display's her acute eye for effectual material from personal, professional and atypical perspectives. References to obscure intellectuals as well as contemporary comedians and satirists, presidents and peasants, round out the author's fascinatingly broad assortment of subjects. Keen to be objective, and yet contrary in her judgement, Smith also reveals bits and pieces of herself along the way, exposing a diverse influence of legendary authors and figures including her mother right along with the aforementioned Eliot, E.M. Forster, Zora Neale Hurston, Fouceault, Spinoza, Nabokov, Lehrmontov, Barthes, Kafka and David Foster Wallace. You don't have to be a writer, scholar, critic or even that much of a heavy reader to appreciate Smith's amusing, anecdotal and self-reflective prose. Her essays on her family, her intimate and curiously professional relationship with her mother and her appreciation for her father and his wartime experiences, are candid, touching and sure to interest anyone. (824.914 SMITH)

My Antonia by Willa Cather

“My Antonia” is one of Willa Cather’s best known books. She began writing in her 40’s and this book is her fourth, first published in 1918. Cather is famous for giving us full and vivid stories of characters who explored and settled America, many of whom came from other countries. “My Antonia” is set in Nebraska, where Cather’s family relocated from Virginia when she was nine years old.

The book is about Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant girl who first comes to Nebraska from Europe when she is only 12. But Antonia does not tell the story, her neighbor Jim does. He comes to Black Hawk, Nebraska, to live with his grandparents after his parents die, the same time that Antonia and her family arrive. His family helps Antonia’s family out as they undergo hardships. Think of living in a cave, hollowed out in the sod, during your first winter before you can plant and build a house ! The Shirmedas have to do just that to get through the bitter winter, hanging on until springtime.

Having the story told from Jim’s point of view gives us a chance to know Antonia as if she was our friend and companion, too. We see her vitality and high spirits. She loves the farm and the countryside, and when she has to live in the city for an interlude, being anonymous, alone among so many, crushes her spirit. She wants to be where she knows “every stack and tree, and where all the ground is friendly.”

Their two lives inevitably grow apart, as Jim becomes educated and moves east, rising in the world of railways and big business. Antonia stays on and has her own struggles in the small town and its community. But their friendship stands fast, anchored when they were children, wandering over the prairie that is so lush in spring, and so stark in the summer heat and the winter blasts. Cather brings the land and its feelings right to you, just as she does with the people. There are echoes of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby here- how the future beckons us, yet leaves the strongest feelings in the past. Cather suggests that Antonia has taken the right road – that the land and each other, and being faithful to both, may be our best chance for contentment.

First Lines Quiz: Week 6: Horror

Young African Authors Writing Today

I found this article on current African authors on today : 10 Young African Writers You Should Know. I liked it because here in the U.S. we tend not to hear about the literary scene in Africa so much. A few of the writers included in the article haven't published an English-language novel yet, but I checked against our library's catalog, and it looks like we have copies of most of the authors who have already published a long-form novel. If you are interested in finding other African authors, you might want to take a look at the winners of the Caine Prize, a prize for short stories by African writers. Or, of course, you can always stop by the Reference Desk :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Lottery Winners and Windfalls: Books On Unexpected Wealth

The Winner / by David Baldacci
Something is crooked in the nation's capital, and for once it's got nothing to do with politics. The national lottery has been fixed 12 times by a man named ‟Jackson‟ who deftly goes about putting the proceeds and the lottery winners to his own "good use". Now to protect his secret, he aims to kill the latest winner, a poor, innocent working class single mom named LuAnn Tyler. But what Jackson doesn't know is that LuAnn isn't as innocent as she seems and she doesn't much like the thought of dying and leaving her young daughter all alone in the world. (FIC BALDACCI)

Money Can't Buy Love / by Connie Briscoe
For 38-year-old Lenora Stone, bad luck seems to be the only luck she has at all. A beat photographer for Baltimore's rich and fabulous, all phases of Lenora's dismal life seem stuck in reverse until the day she wins the jackpot in the Maryland Lottery. Suddenly everything she ever wanted (or maybe didn't want as is the case with her dull boyfriend Gerald) is within her influence of control. But can having all the money in the world cause a girl to go too far? (FIC BRISCOE)

Mr. Toppit: A Novel / by Charles Elton
Children's author Arthur Hayward never lived to see the success his little series of books would generate. He was run over by a cement truck just before his novels broke it big. Now his literary legacy and its substantial monetary benefits have been left to his widow Martha and their two children Rachel and Luke. And while fame and fortune are nice for a little while, the long-term cost of being branded with the Hayward namesake is a little on the unpleasant side, especially for Luke who's seen as the real-life model for the protagonist in his father's novels. (FIC ELTON)

Lucky You / by Carl Hiaasen
Grange, Florida's latest claim to fame is JoLayne Lucks, the unlikely winner of the state lottery. Only JoLayne's winning ticket isn't the only one. The other belongs to Bodean Gazzer and his raunchy sidekick, Chub, who believe they're entitled to the entire $28 million jackpot, needing the entire amount right away to fund their own underground militia. Unwilling to give up her rightful winnings, JoLayne fights back when Bode and Chub beat her up and steal her ticket, vowing to track them down, take back what's hers and get revenge. (FIC HIAASEN)

Windfall / by James Magnuson
Even though he's always thought himself to be above worrying about material things like having enough money, 40-year-old Ben Lindberg is feeling the pinch. And he's not liking it. He can't fix his car, he can't buy a better house in a better part of town, his wife won't stop bugging him and he just can't seem to feel good about his job. So when he suddenly stumbles (literally) across a stash of cash in his own basement, he sees little reason why he shouldn't put it to good use. But there's a reason why the cash was there in the first place, and it's not one which had Ben's financial straits in mind. (FIC MAGNUSON)

Lucky Chica / by Berta Platas
Rosie Caballero leads what she feels is kind of a shabby life. Her third-rate job leaves her with barely enough money to pay the rent and almost no money to keep her dog, Tootie, well-fed. But Rosie's ship comes in when she wins the largest lottery jackpot ever--$600 Million. With her newfound wealth, Rosie's now a minor celebutante with glamour, glitz and fame now within her price range. With everything she ever wanted and some unexpected surprises which never occurred to her, Rosie's got it made in the shade. But there's some things that money just can't buy. (FIC PLATAS)

Windfall / by Penny Vincenzi
In Depression-era Britain, Cassia Tallow is a doctor's wife and a doctor herself even though she's more a stay-at-home mom at the moment. When she suddenly inherits a large fortune from her wealthy godmother, Cassia's world instantly changes into one where she can both mingle with her former high society friends and be a doctor, the kind of humanitarian practice she's always wanted, at her own discretion. But when certain clues bring her to the suspicion that her inheritance may not be rightfully her own, Cassia tries to track down the truth at any cost. (FIC VINCENZI)

American Psycho / by Bret Easton Ellis (*SEVERE GRAPHIC CONTENT ADVISORY)

Born in Southern California in 1964, Bret Easton Ellis' early life was, by any standard, one of affluence and overprivelege. And yet it was also one largely empty of compassion in which his family was never really "a family". He has on more than one occasion stated that his father Victor, a Hollywood executive and an intimidating, abusive man with psychotic tendencies, was used as a model for the character of Patrick Bateman. Flourishing early as a writer, Ellis published Less Than Zero while attended Bennington College in Vermont at the age of 21. His immediate later years saw him become friends with literary "Brat Pack" figures such as Jay McInerny, Donna Tartt (also a Bennington alum) and Tama Janowitz. Though Less Than Zero was a bestseller which brought much admiration and recognition from critics, ultimately his career has been defined by the polarizing novel American Psycho. A book (eventually) published in 1991 to a swarm of controversy and criticism, namely from notable Women's Rights groups like NOW and Violence Against Women where leading figures like Gloria Steinem and Tammy Bruce vehemently protested its publication, the book has never ceased to attract attention, much of it negative, and provoke conflict within literary and social circles. The 1999 movie adaptation only furthered the author's (as well as lead actor Christian Bale's) popular legacy among detractors as an exploitative artist. To be sure, the story and its themes cannot be easily separated from the staggeringly abominable violence contained within it. Yet a closer examination of the novel and at the author's trademark passive tone and affectless style may reveal some of the deeper, more intuitive (and, yes, perhaps even remarkable) delineations of the world in which we live.

"…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there."

26-year-old Patrick Bateman lives in New York City during the boom years of the 1980's. An investment banker on Wall Street, he works a job with an enormous paycheck to go along with the trust fund fortune he's inherited. All of his friends are the same. They all hail from the 'ruling class'. All have Harvard degrees and wear Brioni suits. They eat out at restaurants where thousand-dollar tabs are routine and "hardbody" waitresses serve them cocktails. Following dinner, they attend parties or nightclubs where they are always the VIP's and, if they so choose, can usually score some cocaine with ease. When Patrick or his friends get bored, increasingly frequent nowadays, they amuse themselves by counting the bums on the streets or comparing the cost of their patented business cards. As image is always important, it goes without saying that each wear not only the best clothing but apply themselves to pampering their skin, hair and nails to sustain their youth. Appearance and projection of success is of utmost importance at all times.

There is however a different side to Patrick Bateman. It is a facet of himself largely obscured by the consummately materialistic world of which he is a part of, but one which warrants attention never the less. Creeping through his thoughts and overcoming his sanity is an increasingly powerful urge towards murder and mayhem. Far more seditious than any vile fantasies of which his contemporaries joke about, Bateman's world is one in which the compulsion to kill, and not only to kill, but to torture and explore the boundaries of mutilation and torment is steadily entrenching itself as his reality. Though able to subdue his impulses initially and restrict his murderous appetites to the relatively safe subjects of prostitutes and beggars, Patrick soon discovers that he can no longer contain his habits. Consequently his passionate lust for destruction and violence is soon extended to those within his own circle as his conscience ceases to make distinctions of any kind whatsoever.

There's a lot to be said about this book, so much so that a separate section located here on another blog has been devoted to further elaborating just what the book (and the movie) really mean. For the overwhelming majority of persons who have only watched the movie and not read the book, the images of Christian Bale's blood-spattered face and "posing" will largely contribute to the popular opinion of the story as a curiously surrealistic, darkly humorous exploitation piece of the late nineties. To others who may have watched the movie more closely, the figure of Bateman may represent the poster-child of postmodern, white American male identity--essentially an individual whose subtle vanity, deceptive personality, overwhelming apathy and contempt born of greed and misogyny are emphasized in place of physcial machismo and a more open disposition toward the sexual appetite. The book is not the movie; nor does it really go the same direction as the film (which ironically was supposed to star Leonardo Dicaprio until some nasty letters from the same women's rights groups who'd originally opposed the book got through to his agent) and which, admittedly, is more of a sensationalized venue in the same overtly narcissistic vein as Fight Club, The Basketball Diaries or Boondock Saints. Those who label the movie as a sort of underground male fantasy aren't terribly far off. But the book is different. Taken in context, it's very much an existential iconoclasm, a self-examining literary piece of the purest sense which not only explores the power of choice and the inevitability of consequence, but exposes the contrast of separate realities within a severely damaged society. Ellis really is something different. With shades of Dostoevsky, Camus or Kafka, there's also a transgressive, more meta-fictional nature to his style (think Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, even David Foster Wallace or Tom McCarthy). Within the context of the storytelling is the inevitable inconsistency of communication, a dissonance of reality amid varying states of consciousness. It's difficult to tell if what's happening is really happening or merely an illusion as motivations and characterization can be hard to ascertain (Ellis himself has said that the 'reality' of the murders/violence/carnage isn't necessarily supposed to be distinguishable). There's more reaction from Bateman over a peer with a better business card than over the killing of a small child, more despair at the inability of his local cleaners to clean his sheets than at hacking up his neighbor. Taken at face value, it's a confusing rundown of seemingly random reflections by a certifiable psychotic. And yet a closer look reveals a literary goldmine of self-reflective prose, a wonder of exposition hidden between the *deplorably-graphic-to-the-point-of-simply-unreadable content. (FIC ELLIS)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less / by Alexander Aciman

Is there anything that can't be done faster and with more abruptness? Apparently not. Even the greatest of the classic works of literature are never safe from the fast food mode of information dissemination we live with nowadays. Instant messaging, texting and Twitter have seemingly revolutionized communication to a point of no return. And so it's kind of an inevitability when you think about it that all "knowledge" will be streamlined before we know it. With this in mind, a couple of kids (both of them 19 at the time of writing) have taken it upon themselves to redo some of the world's best books (and plays and poems) ever. From the point of view of the major characters involved with a bit of of side-noting, each book is translated in Tweet-form, summarizing the gist of the story. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front / by Erich Maria Remarque, quite a "@Remarquable Tale" we're told, things start off with a nod to the now regrettable decision by the main character Paul to enlist in the German Army during World War I. "I've always heard 'Paul. Listen to adults, and teachers.' You too? We could be in Hamburg cracking open a Holsten instead."

On the cover of this book is a definition for the title--Twitterature: \'twi-te-re-,chur\n: an amalgamation of "twitter" and "literature"; humorous reworkings of literary classics for the twenty-first-century intellect, in digestive portions of 20 tweets or less. And that's just what it is. Some of the tweets are very funny; others are just plain silly and far more than just a few are really raunchy. Swiftness is key. Most tweeted book reports aren't but a page (a small page) or two at most. Along with the often quite sublime (and college-level crude) comments, things can get to the point in a hurry (i.e., from Fitzgerald's best known book: "Two bad drives met. :O," "Gatsby is so emo. Who cries about his girlfriend while eating breakfast... IN THE POOL?"). A brainchild of college students, Aciman and his roommate Emmett Rensin, at the University of Chicago, Twitterature is really irreverent. But it's also something which, as with everything else in the digital age, can't help but providing your literary knowledge with burst of quirky ingenuity. It might not be Cliffs Notes, but it's definitely a trip. Readers should be warned that this book is definitely *adult* in its humor. (818.607 ACIMAN)

The Way Home: A Novel / by George Pelecanos

Washington, D.C. lifetime resident George Pelecanos worked as a dishwasher, a cook and a women's shoe salesman prior to publishing his first novel A Firing Offense in 1992. He has subsequently risen through the ranks to become one of the leading crime novelist today, setting many of his nitty-gritty dramas in his hometown at various times in the city's history. Since 2004, he has also been a staff writer for the award-winning HBO program "The Wire", which chronicles much of the same interconnecting urban characters and personalities set in nearby Baltimore. His 2009 standalone book The Way Home chronicles a group of young men who've remained close since their days in a juvenile detention center but whose lives become mutually imperiled after a strange discovery.

All Thomas Flynn ever wanted for his son and only child was for Chris to not make the same mistakes which had befallen his own life, namely dropping out of high school, neglecting a college education and being doomed to a blue collar job for life. For Thomas, it's not that his life is all that bad, actually it's quite good. He lives in his boyhood home in a well-to-do part of D.C. (his parents bequeathing it to him upon their deaths), he's married and still in love with his high school sweetheart, he owns his own flooring installation business, he can retire early if he wants to, etc. But Chris's life so far has been a disappointment, at least in Thomas eyes. A smart kid raised in the kind of atmosphere Thomas had hoped would nurture the boy into the type of white-collar realm he'd envisioned for him, Chris had turned bad well before he could even start applying for college.

It had started with smoking dope in middle school, had escalated to violence and vandalism by his freshman year of high school and had finally landed the boy in a juvenile detention center at the age of 16. Chris had gotten his diploma while inside and had even made some decent friends. But in the 6 or so years since his release, he hadn't even thought of going to college or doing anything other than helping his father with the family business. That and he still hung around with his pals from the inside, some of whom Thomas had thought enough of to hire on as workers but others who he knew were nothing but trouble. When an incident involving what seems to be a shoddy carpet job suddenly disrupts the normal routine, Thomas believes it's nothing but another disappointment from the boy he'd hoped so much for. It's not until the real truth comes out that Thomas reconsiders his convictions as all of their lives change forever.

It's easy to see why Pelecanos is so revered as a crime writer both in the literary and media circles. His well-developed characters, edgy but not over-the-top situations and honest dialogue help the reader understand what the genre of crime writing is all about--inevitable human fallibilities, personal motivations and a world of glaring inequality. Very keen on socio-economic circumstances, roots of society's problems as well as the volatile, often violent condition of the nation's capital, the author doesn't even need any type of formula to evoke a good story. His ground-level characters and their domestic lives create all of the drama the story needs and then some. The sort of multi-perspective bird's eye-view he imparts to the reader through nearly all of the primary characters, facilitating everyone with the same sympathetic yet honest treatment, is probably his greatest tool and, ironically, one of the facets which has distinguished "The Wire" as such a successful series. (FIC PELECANOS)