Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Waltz with Bashir by film director Ari Folman and artistic director David Polonsky

“Waltz with Bashir” is an Israeli animated documentary film which took four years to make. It was released in 2008 and made into a graphic novel in 2009. We have both the book and the DVD. Since I watched the DVD before reading the book, it was difficult for me to evaluate the merits of the book by itself. The book is a fairly seamless adaptation of the movie, so it mostly served to remind me of how I experienced the film. Although the shots in the book are chosen with care, the bleakness and the violence portrayed have a greater impact in the movie then from the book’s pages.

Ari Folman started working on the film after a friend who had served in the Israeli army brought to his attention a recurrent nightmare he had that stemmed from his wartime experience. Folman realized that he himself had blocked out memories from his own time in the military. He then began dreaming of himself emerging on a beach with two other young soldiers, going forward to encounter streams of women and children, all in great distress. Because he couldn’t remember where this dream came from, he began to talk to others who served with him. Eventually the scenario of a particular event emerged, a 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christian Phalangist soldiers of residents in two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.

War had been going on in Lebanon since 1975. Many Palestinians lived in Lebanon and some of them waged war on Israel from Lebanese territory. Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, seeking to wage war on the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), with the support of the Lebanese government. Eventually Israel forces controlled Beirut, and they agreed in September to let the Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces enter the two camps in West Beirut, ostensibly to flush out PLO fighters. Instead of which the Lebanese soldiers killed, raped and mutilated men, women and children for three days, while Israeli forces provided light by shooting flares and kept residents from fleeing the camps.

The film has won numerous awards and accolades for both the director and the artistic director. It shows the fighting from the young soldiers’ viewpoint - how they fire because they are told to fire, and because they are afraid. The film has been faulted for indirectly slighting or minimizing the massacres by focusing on what it meant for the Israeli soldiers to be part of the killings, without full knowledge or consent. What is interesting in the political fallout is that some higher ups in the Israeli army were removed from their commands as a result of their collaboration in the massacre, but no Christian Phalangist soldiers were ever charged with their crimes. Ari Folman simply terms his film as “anti-war”; and as an exercise into how horrific events can go unacknowledged even when people see them with their own eyes.

The film shows us the cruelty, the wantonness of war, and how combatants try to protect themselves by blocking out events. But this specific war has specific circumstances. How people live with unsafe borders, how soldiers deal with being fired on by 13-year olds, how displaced people wait for liberation and a job… “Waltz with Bashir” raises more issues then it can deal with. Ari Folman, in a BBC interview, comments sardonically that Israel has had no issues with the film and its depiction of events. This may be because while we see the bodies, and hear the wailing of those left alive, there is no real unearthing of what happened, of how this ferocity was unleashed.

Before I Go To Sleep: A Novel / by S.J. Watson

"The Bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don't know where I am, how I came to be here. I don't know how I'm going to get home."

Recurring amnesia is a serious issue with Christine, such a problem that even when she 'knows' the who, where and why, she's still suspicious. Every morning her husband Ben must explain everything about her past, her present and the condition caused by a trauma, an accident some time ago. Recently her work with a new doctor has given Christine the idea to document her the important, key facts in her life, reminding her of things she may not know or remember but which could make or break the rest of her life. Keeping track of daily events, with and without her husband's knowledge, Christine begins piecing things about her story together and some things don't add up, like certain details surrounding her accident. When she one day finds a note-to-self with "Don't Trust Ben" written on it, Christine's situation becomes far more serious than just loss of memory.

This is a very entertaining book, a suspense driven psychological thriller with enough substance to leave readers thinking. Watson digs to the very soul of Christine's problem and, at the same time, to the very soul of truth and existence. The narrative structure isn't the easiest and readers might have a difficult time piecing the mystery together even after reading it, but its a plot driven story with twists at every page, a compelling story and wonderful debut novel. More than a few movie fans may remember the film 2000 Memento starring Guy Pearce, based on an originalshort story by Jonathan Nolan, brother of director Chris Nolan, will reconnect with the synopsis about an individual whose memory is swept away each new day. But with Watson's novel, there is so much more to the character and the story. (FIC WATSON)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Snow Angels / by Stewart O'Nan

Born in Pittsburgh in 1961, Stewart O'Nan graduated with a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from Boston University and nearly a decade working and teaching in the field prior to taking up writing at the prodding of his wife. Although he's been a successful novelist in the years since he began writing, perhaps his most notable accomplishment was the book Faithful, based on the World Series run of the 2004 Boston Red Sox he penned along with Stephen King. O'Nan would call the effort "the luckiest thing I've ever done". His first novel Snow Angels, published in 1994 to great applause, follows a Pennsylvania teenager who's parents are in the process of getting a divorce.

In 1974, Arthur Parkinson is fourteen years old and not exactly enjoying life. Along with having to grow up in a generally dreary Pennsylvania town, Arthur is currently witnessing the disintegration of his parents's marriage. His father's moved out of the house and in with a new girlfriend and his mom just can't seem to handle it. Not that he's especially close to them in the first place. On more than one occasion, they seem to completely forget about Arthur, failing to pick him up from school or at his part-time job then arguing between them over who's fault it was. His job isn't so bad actually. He gets to work with Annie, his former babysitter and lifelong crush, who's a good friend even though she's married with a small child. Unknown to Arthur, however, is that everything's not quite OK for Annie at the moment. Her husband Glenn, her high school crush, is mentally unstable and has a bit of a drinking problem. Recently just out of a psychiatric hospital and currently living with his parents, Glenn wants to see the couple's daughter Tara more and even patch things up with Annie who, unbeknownst to anyone, is having an affair with the husband of a co-worker. It doesn't take too long for the pot to boil over and everything to become one big mess. When Tara goes missing one afternoon, all hell breaks loose with Glenn a suspect and the whole town set out to search for the missing girl. And that's when Arthur makes the discovery that will change everything.

Snow Angels is eerily similar to Rick Moody's The Ice Storm (FIC MOODY), a book later made into an award-winning film by Ang Lee starring Kevin Kline and Elijah Wood. Both were published in 1994, both are set in the 1970's, take place amidst obvious winter weather in the northeastern US and they both feature high domestic drama of a tragic nature. And still there's more. Each offer the same sort of intersecting family crises involving adults and infidelity cross cut by curious adolescents engaged in early relationships. In all factuality, this seems merely a coincidence with no real recognition of the fact other than a fledgling article about both books being a sort of Yuppie fiction. The style and narrative of Snow Angels is a little different from Ice Storm. Alternating chapters present Arthur in the first person and then the Marchand clan in omniscient third person. It's not something you see a lot of books and on the whole it works OK; if there's a problem with the novel it's not the prose. It's the way the intended character intersection doesn't quite make it. The circumstances don't really meet and it's more a case of two individual stories than one well integrated plot. Snow Angels is also a 2007 movie starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell which has received generally favorable reviews. (FIC O'NAN)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Paris during the La Belle Epoque is a place and time evoking many bawdy, even decadent connotations. Bohemian Montmartre, Moulin Rouge, Can-can dancers, legalized prostitution and widespread debauchery were all
relevant activities and themes. At the center of it all, sharing in the esprit du temps and chronicling the unique spectacle was a very talented artist with an especially acute eye for the provocative named Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Born to a moderately aristocratic family in Albi in 1864, life was not easy for the youth whose parents, first cousins whose mothers had been sisters, separated early on in his childhood. Owing to an obvious but largely undiagnosed genetic disorder (now speculated to be pycnodysostosis, or Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome), Henri suffered from numerous illnesses and painfully disabling features his entire life. When both his legs fractured around the age of 13, they never healed properly leaving the lower half of his body undeveloped and prone to Rickets. Nevertheless his talent for drawing the painting was evident early on and his caretakers, specifically his mother, did everything to aid the youth with a proper education and tutelage. By 1880, Lautrec had settled semi-permanently in the Montmartre, home to the city's Red Light district as well as many other artists, namely Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bernard and Gen Paul, painters already emerging onto the exciting Post-Impressionist scene. Accepted within this circle and well-admired for his gifts with watercolor portraits and lithographs, the young Lautrec soon rose to prominence, his skill and exposure boosted by his steady stream of dry-point posters and snapshot image postcards of the city scenes. His well-endorsed paintings soon drew worldwide fame and Lautrec was able to travel extensively and live luxuriously. Tragically, the pain he suffered due to his condition as well as a general propensity for spirits plunged the young artist into severe alcoholism by his late twenties and even though family and friends tried to help him overcome his struggles, he died in 1901 at the age of 36. Several items showcase his unforgettable work such as The Life and Works of Lautrec (759.4 HARRIS), Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre (DVD 760.092 TOULOUSE), Toulouse-Lautrec: The Complete Graphic Works: A Catalogue Raisson: The Gerstenburg Collection (769.92 ADRIANI), and Toulouse-Lautrec: His Complete Lithographs and Dry-Points (769.924 A). There's also a foundation dedicated to his life which displays an entire collection of his work.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ulysses / by James Joyce

Born to a middle class family in Dublin in 1882, James Joyce was the eldest of ten (surviving) children had by his father John, a city rate
collector, and a mother who'd originally come from one of Dublin's wealthier families. Always a good student with an early astuteness in writing, Joyce's education was predominately concentrated within the surrounding Jesuit Catholic institutions, especially after his father's drinking and mismanagement of family funds deteriorated the family's situation. Upon graduating from University College Dublin in 1903, Joyce emigrated to continental Europe where he would spend most of the rest of his life. Dropping out of medical school in Paris, he lived periodically in other parts of the continent, namely France and Switzerland, where he made several unsuccessful stabs at publishing his writings. It wasn't until 1914 that his first major success, Dubliners, a short story collection chronicling citizens of Dublin, was released to great acclaim and speculation, sentiments echoed upon the publication of his first major novel, Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man, in 1916. His crowning achievement, Ulysses (1922), a serialised novel chronicling a day in the life of a Dublin man named Leopold Bloom whose story mirrors that of Ulysses (Latin for Odysseus) from Homer's Odyssey was and is seen as one of the pinnacle works modernist literature, its "stream of consciousness", intricate structure, allusory style and experimental prose considered a groundbreaking dénouement of the time. With its success came boatloads of controversy including several obscenity trials on the then explicit content, bannishments of the text in the US and elsewhere, harsh criticism of the book's theoretical innacuracies and charges of misrepresentation of Ireland's Catholic majority. Still, Modern Library has consistently named it the #1 English-language novel of the 20th century and the the date of June 16th, the day the novel takes place, is celebrated in Ireland and worldwide in various literary circles as Bloomsday, something not a lot of works of literature can claim.

"Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead."

June 16, 1904 is a normal day in Dublin. For Leopold Bloom, it may as well be any one on the calendar. Even though he knows his wife Molly is having an affair with a colleague, he has neither the initiative nor the inclination to do much about it and his job as an advertising agent, though decent, isn't getting him anywhere. Ever since the death of his young son Rudy some years back, his life has been one of quiet soul searching and dissillusionment. His actions mirror his thoughts as depressive, largely escapist manners and habits including long breaks from work, strolls along the nearby waterfront, drinking, daydreaming and occasionally lusting after women in view. Meanwhile a younger man named Stephen Daedalus is fledgling writer and part-time school teacher whose struggling to find his place in the world. He lives in a house with two other boarders and has family in town though his mother has recently died. A connoisseur of many things cultural and someone who can be opinionated, Stephen shares much of the same quiet longing as Leopold and lives with the same paradoxical sensitivity, "[fearing] those big words which make us so unhappy". As the day passes and characters mix and mingle, both Leopold and Stephen (only vague acquaintances) interconnect and interact with the life of Dublin, a city in the early twentieth century on the verge of so much yet held down by maddeningly inauspicious circumstances.

Even for a masterpiece, Ulysses is not an easy book to digest. Especially when you consider the multiple implications each section--three parts subdivided into eighteen individual episodes correlating to portions of each of The Odyssey's adventures--carefully and intricately contributes to the novel's larger whole. Add to that the connection between the novel and the epic poem not to mention the reflection of the work on Joyce's own life, Stephen Daedalus viewed as Joyce's literary alter ego, and it's not hard to see why the book's many merits still come under scrutiny. The fact stands though that as a novel, Ulysses is a seminal work of English-language fiction, not only groundbreaking as a novel in both format and focus but as a conjunctive artform at a time--post-WWI, post-Easter Rebellion, rise of avant-gardism, introduction of self-consciousness in art, etc.--which would prove most pivotal in the cultural evolution of the 20th century. The day of the novel's plot can even be seen as a crucial player in this interwoven tapestry, the date itself being ample evidence of literary self-consciousness--June 16, 1904 was the day of Joyce's first "stepped out" with his future wife, Nora Barnacle--and therein a tip-off to the abstraction within the work. Perhaps of foremost importance, and therefore the element of the book of which can be attributed with the most critical precedence, is Joyce's use of the "stream of consciousness" narrative. Prominently featured throughout the book and highly concentrated in the final section Penelope, in which Bloom's wife Molly contemplates the previous day, is this soliloquy-styled inner voice privatized in the mind of each individual character. Among the first English-language novelists to use such a device in fiction--Shakespeare's soliloquized bits in such plays as "Hamlet", "Romeo and Juliet", "Othello", "Julius Caesar", etc. as well as Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu's first installment Swann's Way had utilized it previous--Joyce showcased his talent by indwelling his world with the loosely connected interior monologues of his characters, their public and private lives very much isolated through their internalizded meanderings and yet equally bonded together by such a 'stream' of waking conciousness. It can be said the nothing in the novel makes much sense upon a first reading of the considerably lengthy (nearly 800 pages in the Modern Library's small-print edition) work. There's a lot of it which seems disjointed and confusing, anecdotal passages associated with vaguely identifiable characters compounded by multiple run-on sentences with no clear direction. But to the reader who invests the time and energy to extract from the novel what the author is really saying, it is indeed one of the greatest novels of all time. (FIC JOYCE)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mighty Walzer / by Howard Jacobson

Young Oliver Walzer doesn't have much to recommend him, even less to recommend his family. Growing up Jewish in 1950's Manchester (UK), he's the butt of numerous jokes by his older sisters, the shame of his father who wants a more macho son (with "swagger") and the target (literally) of his peers, the "prefab boys", who peg him with rocks if he goes outside. Yet Oliver's never questioned that he's destined for great things. "Grandiosity was in the family," after all. As adolescence settles upon him, so does a penchant for the game of ping pong which he plays by himself each afternoon in mesmerizing fashion. Before long he's good enough to beat his parents then his neighbors, then the kids at the local Jewish Community Center, the Akiva club where his use of a hardbound book as a paddle is smirked at until he wins over some admirers with his skill. Walzer comes into his own by his mid-teen years, even entering into a few awkward relations with the opposite sex where it becomes apparent that, despite his prowess at table tennis, he's nothing so grandiose when it comes to love. Through it all, anecdotes of growing up in post war England, life in blue collar Manchester, living with his charismatic father and "reserved" mother are colorfully portrayed and generously detailed in equally poignant and ribald fashion.

Howard Jacobson, 2010 Booker Prizewinning writer of The Finkler Question, has been called England's version of Philip Roth, a commendation he's replied to by proclaiming that he's the "Jewish Jane Austen". Not just a fantastic comic novelist, he's also very outspoken politically as a "liberal Zionist", contributing weekly to the UK news publication The IndependentThe Mighty Walzer is the most autobiographical of his books--Jacobson was also a champion table tennis player as a teenager in Manchester--and though it may not be apparent upon a first reading (a lot of Yiddish and British slang can be a bit hindering) the satire and jovial tone of the book is enough to satisfy any reader already familiar with the work of Philip Roth, John Irving or even Saul Bellow. Either way, Jacobson's definitely not an author to miss out on and not someone who should be taken merely for his comically acerbic style. (FIC JACOBSON)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Everything They Had: Sportswriting from David Halberstam

At the age of 8, David Halberstam began publishing a family newspaper recounting his father's missives from overseas and his brother's daily haul of fish. He followed with what became a storied, 65-year career as a prolific journalist in which he covered everything from war to race relations, politics, business and sports. Halberstam died in 2007 at the age of 73, killed in a car accident while on his way to do an interview for his next book, The Coldest War.

During his lifetime, he wrote more than 20 nonfiction books, many of them bestsellers. His wife, Jean Halberstam, told the New York Times she believed he was proudest of his trilogy on war: The Best and the Brightest (about the Vietnam War), War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals and The Coldest War (about the Korean War and published posthumously).

But for all of Halberstam's focus on the world's troubles, he always held sports close to his heart. His sports books include The Amateurs, The Breaks of the Game and The Education of a Coach. (Visit for a selection of some of Halberstam's columns for the site.) He viewed sports as a lens from which he could view the "changing mores of the rest of the society." In sports, he saw reflections of our culture, history and humanity. In fact, he likened sports writing to war reporting:
"Most other journalistic assignments are mundane and by their nature resistant to almost any instinct to indulge in literary tendencies. The one exception is war, which is graphic and can be readily and movingly described, and to which ambitious young journalists have always been pulled. The drama of war, like the drama of sports, is self-evident. The reporter not only set out to move his readers; he was moved himself."
Everything They Had (070.449796 HALBERST) is a collection of some of Halberstam's lesser-known essays, articles and columns on sports. They span the decades and the field, from a 1955 story on competitive rowing that he wrote as a staff writer for the Harvard Crimson to an introduction to the 2006 book Super Bowl XL Opus. What I, as a reader, find so gratifying about them is their innate readability and accessibility. The best journalism offers context and perspective; it helps you make sense of what it is you're reading and fit it into the larger picture of world. Halberstam does just that. I know little of sports but Halberstam pulls in even in the least knowledgeable with his eloquence and love of the game. He doesn't report on athletic events and personalities just for form's sake, but rather as a window into what they say — about themselves, each other, and us as a society.

At the same time, he firmly understands how sports fits in the larger picture, writing at the two-year anniversary of 9/11, "I like sports, enjoy the artistry of them enormously... But I think there is an important faultline out there somewhere: The world of sports is the world of sports, and reality is reality."

His language is spare and simple, with a conversational tone and gracefulness that make his words easily and eagerly devoured. He serves up sports history with ease, commenting on the impact of such game-changers as the Civil Rights Movement and television, as well as athletic pioneers and personalities. Nor does he neglect the quieter side of sports: the bonding between friends on a fishing trip, the pleasure of rowing with his wife. Whatever topic he broaches, he does it in such as way you feel like he's simply sitting beside you, telling you a story as a lucky "every fan" who's gotten the opportunity to go fishing in Patagonia or visit with legends like baseball Hall of Famer Williams or basketball great Michael Jordan.

And, ensnared, you can't help but listen and learn and enjoy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism: A Novel / by Peter Mountford

In 2005, Gabriel Francisco de Boya is an American currently on assignment in Bolivia. Though officially a freelance reporter, he's actually an emissary for an aggressive hedge fund known as the Calloway Group who are eager to outbid other investors during the country's current political and financial overhaul. This is neither an easy nor a plausible feat as Gabriel must be as discrete as possible in nonchalantly extracting information pertaining to the economic development plans of the new President-elect Salvador Rodriguez. But there's a hefty bonus in the cards if Gabriel, only just out of college, can get the job done. Standing in his way are multiple obstacles including the country's financial minister, a former hedge fund liason who's more clever than he's given credit for; a fellow reporter, a real one who adopts Gabriel as a love interest; and finally his outspoken mother, a noted college professor and former survivor of the Chilean revolution who's seen the devastation which the international capitalist system has done to the oppressed masses in these parts of the world. Caught in a growing web of lies and questioning his own role in profiting from an impoverished people, Gabriel sets in motion a terrifying plan that could cost him the love of all those he holds dear.

In the backwards but very atmospheric city of La Paz, Mountford has set his tale of modern day economic policies, international politics and the personal lives caught in the middle. The setting and the character of Gabriel create a complex and engaging story, a tale of a man who's not all that out of place as a well-to-do, bilingual American in a Latin country which can barely keep a president in office but has loads of economic potential. But though he likes to think that his common heritage and familiar accent gives him the necessary cover he needs to blend in, he's far from welcomed as a kinsmen. The stakes of the game are higher than anyone could imagine as the game of international finance and surging capitalism intersects Gabriel with all types of characters--rich, poor, then even richer and even poorer--and his own convictions and preconceived notions are turned on their head with each new revelation. This book, both a novel about ideas and politics, succeeds at being equally well-plotted and introspective while remaining a fluid, character-driven story and a tremendously good read. Seattle-based Mountford has lived in Washington, D.C., Sri Lanka and Ecuador and holds an MFA from the University of Washington where he's now a writer-in-residence. (FIC MOUNTFORD)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester

C.S. Forester was an English author whose series about the British naval Captain Horatio Hornblower was a great success both in England and the United States. Although Forester came of age during World War I, he was diagnosed with a heart ailment that kept him from enlisting. He studied to become a doctor, but found he was not suited to it and became an author instead. Beat to Quarters, published in 1937, is the first novel Forester wrote about Hornblower.

Forester was not a seaman, but he had read accounts of England’s naval exploits during the Napoleonic Wars, and made use of this material when he wrote Beat to Quarters. Eventually Forester wrote a total of 12 books about Hornblower, continuing his exploits and also detailing his early career.

Horatio Hornblower is a captain of a frigate ordered to South America to give aid to rebels in Spain’s colonies, with a view to breaking the Spanish domination of the New World. But after he has fought against Spain, news of an alliance between England and Spain against Napoleon changes things, and Captain Hornblower is forced to turn about and fight against the very foes he was risking his men and his ship for at the start of the book.

Forester was writing almost three generations ago, and there are obvious differences in his political and social views from a European writing today. Hornblower has definite opinions of men according to their class and race, and what kind of treatment will best engage their loyalty and their labor. He sees many of his crew as childish brutes. He believes they need to see floggings to curb their restiveness and that their captain must act lighthearted in the midst of heavy warfare to motivate them to fight with renewed purpose. Hornblower is all too aware of the primitive recruiting system which forces sailors to their trade against their will, but he lives with it as a given necessity, as with many of the other privations and hardships that the crew endures.

The wonderful thing about Hornblower’s character is how human he is. In spite of his prejudices, he is sensitive to the circumstances of those around him regardless of their station. When we read, we are getting a full picture of not just the action but of the characters – if the seamen are handling guns in full battle, we are made aware of the incredible backbreaking labor that’s involved, as well as the smoke, the heat, and the capability of return fire to demolish their limbs and their lives.

Forester makes Captain Hornblower vulnerable to self-doubt, yet once he determines on an action all his faculties are brought to bear on the situation, whether it is remasting the ship or fighting a two day battle. Forester skillfully educates the reader regarding the details of navigating and managing such a ship, so we can appreciate the careful calculation and boldness behind each move that Hornblower makes. I’m now reading through the series, and I wholeheartedly recommend them for readers who appreciate naval history, set with stirring action and memorable characters.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hypnotist / by Lars Kepler

In a bedroom community outside of Stockholm, a couple has been discovered brutally murdered in their home. The only survivor, their teenage son, found with multiple knife wounds all over his body, is still nearly catatonic with shock. A homicide squad headed by detective Joona Linna at the helm begins an investigation with very little to go on--despite the horrific crime scene, the killer left no clues. Linna persuades Dr. Erik Maria Bark, a noted psychiatrist, to help extract information from the young victim and though the veteran trauma specialist is initially averse to employing the tactics of hypnosis, a method he used many years earlier but has now given up, Dr. Bark eventually relents and is able to get just enough from the young boy for Linna to hit on a suspect. And just in time too. It turns out that the youth has an older sister who lives away from home and may now be in danger from a very cold-blooded figure indeed, a man who is every bit as menacing as Linna had feared and who most certainly will try to kill again.

This book moves really fast, as swift as Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy and with almost as many plot-boilers. The character of Detective Linna isn't so particularly distinctive--he's as much like many another clever, daring, relentless and often rogue homicide detective--and there's no Lisbeth Salander character to endear the reader, but the story still catches on fairly quickly and its pace keeps the attachment. Lars Kepler is actually a pseudonym for the husband and wife writing team of Alexander and Alexandra Coehlo Ahndori, and much like another author couple from a generation earlier, they've managed a great deal of success with their debut book and it's sequel (yet to be released stateside). At times the stories of both Dr. Bark and Detective Loona can be a bit hard to juggle. It's very back-and-forth. But seasoned Scandinavian crime fiction readers will soon get the hang of it. As with many other similar Nordic Noir thrillers, this book is not for the faint of heart. There is plenty of blood and mayhem, guts and violence on the pages and 'Kepler' spares no one, even the most innocent, from their destiny. (MYS KEPLER)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Another fascinating website for reading suggestions

I just discovered the FiveBooks page on The Browser's website. The site's editors interview a famous person about his/her favorite books on a particular topic. Usually the person they pick to interview is considered an expert in that subject. Some of the interviews include Ruth Reichl discussing her favorite books on American food, J0hn Kerry discussing his favorite books on progressivism, and Oscar Hijuelos talking about his favorite books about Cuba.

The interviews provide a very interesting insight into books that helped shape the ideas of some of today's influential thinkers. Click here to explore the site -- and maybe to add some titles to your own reading list!

Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House and Beyond / by Michael D. Brown

Anyone involved in the Hurricane Katrina mess likely won't have to remember too hard to recognize the author of this book. Michael "Brownie" Brown is someone a lot of people are still angry at. And while it may not be anytime soon that their opinions change, at least he gets to tell his side of the story. The former undersecretary of Homeland Security and FEMA chief who made a hollow mockery out of press conferences during the Hurricane Katrina disaster and who seemingly had the backing of former President Bush tries to counter the opinion most people have of him and the administration's handling of the disaster. But what could have been at least a semi-sincere, apologetic appeal to the masses is instead an account which places blame a little too often by a man more concerned about his own reputation than any apparent "indifference" shown during the disaster. Though he tries to be objective in some parts, Brown's narrative tends to implicate and and indict more than inform. Everyone from his boss Michael Chertoff (who must at least hold some of the blame) to his boss's bosses (President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld) to the state-level chain of command (Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin) to the media (an especially akward section of the book is dedicated to his on-air interview with Soledad O'Brien) and the American public who stand ready to condemn are included in Brown's rant. Though disappointing, his account is informative and most will want to at least take a look at it. It's also a book which still reflects on the local, cultural environment. (976.044 BROWN)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Great White Hope (1970) DVD / a Martin Ritt film w/ screenplay (and original play) by Howard Sackler; starring James Earl Jones & Jane Alexander

"Hey, look, man, I ain't fighting for no race, I ain't redeeming nobody. My mama told me Mr. Lincoln done that. Ain't that why you shot him?"

No one wants Jack Jefferson to be heavyweight champion. In 1909 America, spectators are loath to witness a black man win what's predominately considered the ultimate test of masculinity and skilled athleticism. It's not just that he's black--everyone including Jefferson knows the implications of skin color during the Jim Crow era. It's that he flaunts it. Loud, proud and never shy about confronting the obvious, Jefferson doesn't even have the sense to keep his personal life personal. He's got the wealth to live the high life full of expensive cars and fancy clothes, all of which he rubs in the faces of his detractors. He drinks, gambles and swears loudly. He's friends with criminals. He speaks his mind freely, calling out his critics and taunting his opponents both in and out of the ring. Flouting convention and breaking taboo, he dates and marries white women like his latest girlfriend, Eleanor, whom he keeps by his side wherever he goes. And he's never, ever sorry about any of it.

Desperate for a fighter who can defeat Jefferson and take him off his high horse are a group of zealous promoters who handpick a contender, a "great white hope", whom they feel will get the job done. It doesn't work. With embarrassing ease, Jefferson dispatches with one talked-up fighter, then another and another and so on until there's no one left. Ever more desperate, the powers that be rustle up the previous white heavyweight champ out of retirement to take down the titan. The event is billed as the "fight of the century" and is set in Reno where hundreds of thousands of spectators flock, effigies and all, to watch what must surely be the resounding defeat of Jefferson and the re-establishment of the white race's superiority. Again it doesn't work. Jefferson beats his opponent so badly and in such arrogant fashion that the event, broadcast nationwide on radio and recorded on camera as one of the first ever sporting events to be filmed, causes mass rioting in cities coast to coast. Jefferson is no longer seen as a smallish threat to certain people's pride. He's become enough of a controversial figure that other measures, shady legal ones, are employed to remove him at any cost.

Invariably all of the really good sports movies aren't really sports movies at all. They're usually films like this one which focus on individual athletes and play up the human interest element. There isn't much actual boxing in this film. Nor was the original play and nor the actual, very real-life story of Jack Johnson, the "Galveston Giant", ever really focused on the particulars of a left hook or upper-cut (the "fight of the century" is barely a single scene in the movie). Even as one of the greatest fighters of all time, Jack Johnson's life and legacy aren't really about his boxing prowess. He was too much of a pivotal figure at too critical a juncture to be remembered as merely a legendary athlete. This is something people know now, something which the film and of course the Tony award-winning play starring the same actors delves into and which, in lieu of, attempts to further the enigma of just who Jack Johnson (billed as Jack Jefferson in the film) really was. What's realized is that Jefferson isn't just facing a common adversity. This isn't The Hurricane with Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter able to (eventually) procure justice for himself or Robert Deniro as Jake Lamotta knowing that he needs to take a dive to get a shot at the title. This is an individual truly up against it, a man hated by millions, someone protestant ministers wanted lynched and a figure even denounced by many of his own. Jefferson has no chance at a fair shake and never a moment where his race isn't an issue. And yet at no point is he afraid to be, well, who he is. Jefferson can't hide his fun-loving nature or conceal the fact that he wants to enjoy life. He likes to have a good time and likes for those around him to have a good time. He's not as discrete as some would like, doesn't kowtow to whom he's supposed to but he sees no reason why he should. There are people who recognize this, who see him for who he is and even love him for it--at their peril of course, but still. Furthermore, Jefferson is no martyr. He doesn't dwell on any mythical connotations of his situation or wallow in the ingratiating injustice of his lot. With Jones as Jefferson, we see an energetic man who's often brash and impertinent but there's very little, if any, real malice or selfish resentment in his demeanor, really just the tongue-in-cheek commiseration with his situation being one of circumscribed futility.

The Great White Hope is a powerful film, but one which should be approached without any expectations or bias toward it being a certain type of movie. It's not a period film or exploitation piece. It's not a biopic, a sports flick or yet another movie chronicling America's embarassing racial history. It doesn't criticize, satirize or even condescend. It merely observes with striking palpability the story of a man, a 'colorful' but very smart and very shrewd man, just doing what he does, living his life as best he can how he would prefer to live it. Jones was nominated for an Oscar that year (1971) but lost out to George C. Scott for Patton. Indeed, the real Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was quite a figure, so much so that Ken Burns devoted an entire two-part PBS documentary to him (DVD 796.83092 UNFORGIV) and there are of course several other books and websites on him as well as a local street, 41st St. in Galveston, which has been renamed Jack Johnson Boulevard. (DVD GREAT) 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Repeat Until Rich: A Professional Card Counter's Chronicle of the Black Jack Wars / by Josh Axelrad

Like a lot of low-level financial operators on Wall Street, Josh Axelrad wanted to be rich--now. He had a method of making more money, more effeciently for himself that was at least semi-legal and, if not as sure-fire as some more conservative ventures, was at least more fun than peddling stock options to already-wealthy people. And so at twenty-four, the investment banker set out to make his fortune at the blackjack tables of America's gaming parlors and casinos. Learning some tips of the trade from a fellow blackjack hustler who advised him on avoiding the wily floor managers and surviving inevitable run-ins with casino bosses, of which Josh was assured was the key to successfully winning big, the novice gambler but soon-expert card counter set off for Las Vegas in hopes of hitting the jackpot. The theory put to practice seemed to work for Axelrad who employed his savvy skill and swiftness with figures to live the high life. It wasn't easy. Axelrad's type of lifestyle wasn't gained without some serious interference from various authorities prompting more than a few hasty retreats across casino floors, personal interrogations from angry pit bosses and being banned from over 100 american casinos. But as he retells it, his nearly six-year spree was at least a fun alternative to the 9-to-5 and he did rake in some big time cash payoffs. The author also discusses some of the finer points of being a 'professional' gambler, debunking the myths involved in counting cards, what you can and can't get away with, and the various methods of interacting with other "big players" who are in on the scam. Never is it seen as something only MIT grads can do nor is it encouraged as a novice pastime because, after all, the risk doesn't always meet the reward. (795.423 AXELRAD)

Summer Reading List: Women's Fiction

Books | Best summer reading picks: women's fiction favorites | Seattle Times Newspaper

Check out these recommendations from Seattle, WA librarian Linda Johns.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bulls Island / by Dorothea Benton Frank

Twenty years ago something happened that destroyed the happiness of two young people forever. Sweethearts since junior high school, Elizabeth "Betts" Magee and J.D. Langley of Charleston, S.C. were two recent college graduates who'd just become engaged. They were on their way to a storybook marriage when it all came crashing down (literally) one stormy summer night when a mean-spirited gesture by J.D.'s begrudging mother led to Betts' mother's untimely death. The engagement was effectually broken off and the relationship ended with Betts' taking a job offer in New York City and J.D. becoming a permanent part of the family real estate business. Twenty years later not a lot has changed with Betts living successfully in Manhattan ans a Wall Street investment handler and J.D., now married to a loveless wife, is still flourishing in the ever-lucrative enterprise of waterfront property developments. Only now fate has intervened to bring the couple back together again, even if the catalyst is one more of business than pleasure. The Langleys are planning development on the wildlife conservation area of Bulls Island and (supposedly) has the backing of Betts' own firm who's entrusted their interests with the Charleston gal herself, having given her orders to go down there smooth out any ripples in the deal. With the inevitable confrontation imminent, Betts does her best to prepare her nerves for meeting the man she's never gotten over and the huge secret she's never told anyone save her trusted friend back in New York. J.D. meanwhile is still stuck in his childless union to a drugged-out wife whien he hears of his former fiance's pending return and tries not to get his hopes up.

Low Country (coastal SC & Savannah, GA). It's kind of an "it" place now for popular fiction and the like, although you could probably say it has been for a while now--think Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides, John Jakes' Charleston, Anne Rivers Siddons' Low Country, Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees, etc. Bulls Island is very low country, very much the south's South. It isn't too bad a book though, easy on the obligatory stereotypes, acceptably simple and not too formulaic. Of course this is a book about the South and no such novel would be complete without references to the heat, old rich families, overweight patriarchs, servants, religion, food, cigars, crooked politics or bourbon--all of which are duely noted well-within the book's first few chapters. You also get the sense that low country people take the past way too seriously, coercing some things which, love, fate, destiny or otherwise, just shouldn't be allowed to 'be'--J.D. and Betts' marriage for one. How else could anyone excuse J.D.'s mother's really, really wicked behavior? This might seem a bit overboard to some readers and you wonder why no one really stands up to her. Frank maybe could have been a little more creative in forcing her star-crossed pair apart than just resorting to a crabby, childish mother-in-law. Others may not mind it so much because of how much more interesting it helps the inherent drama play out and with the culmination of the plot. It's frankly (no pun intended) very pleasant to observe how well the author manages to move the story along with her fluid narrative. (FIC FRANK)