Friday, September 30, 2011

POV At A Glance

POV Films is a unique showcase for independent documentary cinema. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year (over 300 since the mid-eighties) on PBS and archives many of their most successful on the website. Known for their intimacy and timeliness, POV puts a face on contemporary social issues and continues to lead the way with groundbreaking filmmaking. The link to their archival selection is here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Amadeus (1984) DVD / a Milos Forman film based on a play by Peter Shaffer; starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge & Jeffrey Jones

"I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar."

Ever since he was a teenager, Antonio Salieri has been Wolfgang Mozart's biggest fan. When the then boy wonder Mozart was wowing the most respected audiences of Europe, Salieri himself had been ardently striving to achieve even an ounce of the majesty that the prodigy possessed. Now only a few years later and in a position to meet and procure the comradery of the Austrian genius, Salieri, himself a moderately successful court composer, is finally introduced to the world's most popular musician only to be horrified by the crude, insincere spoiled brat that is the young Mozart. The man they call the greatest maestro of them all, the man on whom God has bestowed such talent and the granted such an incredible magnitude of singular prowess is little more than a childish baffoon who flouts convention, spouts profanity and prefers tasteless jokes to well-mannered conversation. Even Mozart's own father, Wolfgang, Sr., disgusted at his son's garish antics and refusal to remain with him at home in Salsburg, has essentially let the boy (still in his early twenties circa 1780) alone to do his thing in Vienna where his talent and ingenuity will need to win over the Austrian Emperor and the other pompous court composers like Salieri.

And so he does. To no one's real surprise, Mozart not only wins over the court but the whole empire and indeed the entire world as, in the course of the next ten or so years, the composer revolutionizes music and European culture through his extraordinary repertoire of symphonies (25th and 40th of note), operas (The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, etc.) and assorted concertos, arias, sonatas and choral arrangements (i.e., The Requiem Mass). The only one not overwhelmed by such an epochal transcendence of musical genius upon humanity is Salieri who's simply incensed with the fates and with God himself ("from now on you and I are enemies") for gifting the irreverent Mozart with such skill. So enraged with malice is Salieri that he begins to plot the end of the man he once revered as a peerless master but now loathes with a recrimination so vengeful that he'd rather be committed to an asylum than have to listen to his music again.

Oscars aplenty for Best Director, Picture and Leading Actor (for Abraham, not Hulce) as well as for Sound and Costumes, enormous praise from the international community and a lasting impression of what a period piece should be are all wonderful but it's Mozart's laugh which makes this film a memorable one. A shamelessly off key cackle which breaks the stuffy serenity of all it encounters, it's the one and likely only aspect of the movie which registers at an atonal level. It's been claimed that the concept for it derives from correspondence written by second and third parties who characterize "an infectious giddy . . . like metal scraping glass" laugh which the composer possessed though little record of this has been substantiated. Employed as a dramatic device in the film, it brilliantly captures the mocking "laughter of the gods" which Abraham's Salieri hears in both the literal and figurative sense. Only 35 when he died in 1791, not by poison as the film speculates on but rather a likely rheumatic fever, Mozart remains immortal as a man who gave the world several lifetimes worth of resplendent music. (DVD AMADEUS) 

The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped The American Economy / by Hardy Green

From Lowell, Massachussetts to Hershey, Pennsylvania and from Gary, Indiana to The Dalles, Oregon where Google houses several processing installations and server farms, company towns are and have been as much a part of America as organized labor. Seen by some as models of American capitalism and by others as the mechanism behind socio-economic control and stagnated prosperity, the company town has been pivotal in the evolution of the American economy just as much as ingenuity has propelled labor and industry. Author Hardy Green, an Associate Editor of Business Week, tells the story of numerous visionary capitalists who foresaw a common ground where political freedom and powerful private ownership could pave the way for a utopian ideal.

While the greatest number of the economical luminaries who 'capitalized' on the idea rose to prominence during the industrial revolution, many siezed their opportunities during the war years in the earyl-to-mid twentieth century. People like shipbuilder and construction magnate Henry J. Kaiser used ebbs and flows in the American economy, in this case the onset of WWII, to create industrial communities that could do things like build cargo ships in the deepwater port town of Richmond, CA, simultaneously improving worker productivity, family stability and further progress. The dream was even a reality for Kaiser and his business partner W.A. Bechtel who maximized the fledgling Bay Area town's potential all through the war and into the post-war boom only to witness the frightening decline and fall of the utopia a generation afterwards (Richmond is now routinely high on CQ Press's list of America's most dangerous cities). While the book talks up the towns made famous by industrious men and companies, it rather diminishes the plight of the workers themselves, the great many of them who experienced the inevitable break in loyalty and whose lives and legacies still remain just that--broken. It's certainly not a book which goes in depth as much as you'd like concerning the continually remorphed relationship between capitalism and welfare. (307.7670973 GREEN)

Foyle’s War (British TV Series) Starring Michael Kitchen

This award-winning series by Greenlit Productions (now part of Target Entertainment) was first shown in England in 2002, and aired in the United States in 2003 via PBS Masterpiece Theater. Created and written by Anthony Horowitz, the series is recognized for its exceptional acting and adept screenplays of plots based on real events that took place during World War II in England.

The episodes are mystery stories, with at least 2 or 3 different plots intersecting each other through different relationships and through circumstances of time and place. The chief place in the series is Hastings, a seaside town that saw a lot of action in the war because of being located right across from the European continent.

The main character is Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, played by Michael Kitchen. Honeysuckle Weeks is his driver, played by Samantha Stewart, who is eager and thoughtful at the same time, and is just as riveting a character as Foyle’s Detective Sergeant Paul Milner, played by Anthony Howell. Milner lost his foot early on in the war, and is out of the fighting. He becomes a very capable police detective, thanks to Foyle’s careful nurturing of Milner’s talents.

What you appreciate the most is how Kitchen plays Foyle’s quiet and determined character - showing hesitation when dealt an unexpected card, yet capable of cutting to the quick in almost any situation. While reticent, Foyle is at the same time keenly aware of what feelings are being expressed. It is gratifying, in these egocentric times, to note his humility and restraint - retiring silently while a drama is played out, as when a ruined man takes his own life rather than be hanged for his crime.

While the mysteries and whodunit aspect of the series make for entertaining speculation, what impresses the viewer is how grim wartime actually was – and how it took its toll on families and futures and shook up people's ideas of what was what. Women’s roles in society were broadened by doing the work of the absent men, but they had to live with a lower rate of pay and had to keep the home fires burning - waiting perhaps four years for their loved ones to return.

Whether you care about World War II or not, the series’ acting and smooth dialogue will rope you in and make you a fan. Anthony Horowitz, the show’s creator, regretted not including a narrative explanation about the history of each story, since he spent so much time digging them up. But I believe anyone who watches the series can’t help but appreciate the depth and wisdom that Horowitz has translated into these stories, even without any historical annotation.

(The only thing I do miss is subtitles, since as a Yank those clipped English syllables can fly right by me. Luckily, there’s always the reverse button.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Outfit: A Parker Novel / by Richard Stark

Even for an author as well-published as he was, Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) had a lot of pseudonymns. Though to be fair, many of them were implemented during his early career when his offhand authorship of some pulpish, soft-porn titles discretely bore different pen names out of necessity. The Brooklyn native began writing stories as soon as he could spell and was publishing stories by his late teens. By the early sixties, his stories were being published in several minor serial publications using pen names like Alan Marshall, Ben Christopher or John Decker and it wasn't long before his taught, underworld style novels caught on. It was his Richard Stark novels featuring the gritty, amoral anti-hero Parker that quickly established the author as one to watch out for. With a restless, drifter-like persona and always a score to settle, Parker is the sympathetic criminal living in a world where crime and treachery is a given but survival isn't. Over 20 of the nearly 30 novels Westlake wrote as Richard Stark feature Parker as the protagonist and several have been adaptede or remorphed onto the big screen (different names and places) in movies like Point Blank with Lee Marvin or Mel Gibson's Payback. Elmore Leonard as well as Jim Thompson have said they owe much of their style and characterizations to Westlake and Parker. The Outfit has Parker trying to get back at the syndicate after it tries to kill him.

Some may say that crime doesn't pay. But for Parker, it's all he knows. The veteran thief and underworld player
 would've liked to think that his former employer, an influential crime syndicate referred to as the Outfit, would prefer to lay off him a while. After all, the ruthless way he'd cut ties with them had him thinking they'd leave him alone. But a late-night visit from an amateur hit man with a silenced .25 proved it hadn't. The guy was just a lackey and had had the unfortunate pleasure of breaking in on Parker in Miami during one of his business liasons. With little effort, Parker turns the tables on his would-be assassin and gets the guy to tell all he knows. An hour later and Parker's busting up a backroom poker game where a few former employees sit surprised that he's not dead. After shooting the man that framed him, Parker escapes and forms a plan of his own. Soon with the aid of few fellow rogues, Parker begins ripping off certain racetracks, casinos and 'establishments' owned by the outfit to settle the score.

When is the bad guy a good guy? Usually when all of the other characters are worse than he is. In this case it's more that he just lives by his own code. It's not that Parker is necessarily on a vendetta or out to get someone, it's more just that this is the only way he can achieve some balance in the world system he lives with. As in The Hunter, Parker's actions are usually provoked. His hand is forced by those who've double-crossed or harmed him in some way and the only real way to set things right is to enact swift, brutal revenge toward his enemies. There's an honorable bent to his actions even when he's heedlessly shooting a few bullets into someone in cold blood. There's also a callousness which denies any soulful type of real compassion. Parker doesn't really want a just or an honorable world, he just wants his piece of the pie. (MYS STARK)

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Language of Flowers / by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Life hasn't been all roses for Victoria Jones. Dumped at an orphanage by her birth mother, she's bounced around the foster care system her where she's learned to live hard and act tough. Though never much good at school and certainly not one to get along well with others, there is one thing Victoria has become very, very good at--flowers. A fascination born from spending years alone outdoors, Victoria self-educated herself on the world of flora, having learned by heart all of the different kinds of bulbous, long-stemmed and pollen carrying as well as learning to distinguish even the slightest differences between everything from geraniums to snapdragons and azaleas to tulips, even maintaining a slapshod garden of potted plants out of halved milk gallon containers. Now at the point of "aging out" on her eighteenth birthday, Victoria's more or less relegated to a life on the street where she's taken living (and gardening) in the city park. By chance when she aids a woman loading boxes of plants into her car, Victoria maneuvers her way into a job as an assistant florist where her gifts and most importantly her passions are put to good use.

A great novel about the beauty of nature offsetting the harshness of humanity, The Language of Flowers explores the importance of having a place and the significance of relationships within the families we make for ourselves. Victoria's not an especially secure person when she's first introduced, very much the tormented soul. It's not hard to see why as the narrative toggles back and forth between Victoria's life as a new adult and her girlhood a decade earlier. And yet the story may be that much more poetic for it. As Victoria learns from her boss the "language of flowers", how certain types of flowers can communicate various emotions from giver to receiver, she steadily begins to find her own place in the world. (FIC DIFFENBA)

Friday, September 23, 2011

March by Geraldine Brooks

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, March is the Australian writer’s second novel. It’s set in the American Civil War, and is ostensibly based on a character, March, from Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century novel Little Women. In Little Women, March is the girls’ father, who volunteers to go south and serve as an army chaplain. He is a marginal figure in Alcott's book, being away in the fighting for some time. The actual model Brooks used for March is the historical figure of Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father. He was one of the leaders of the Transcendentalists, who cultivated the belief that God is revealed in nature and in human beings, if they follow the right principles. The Transcendentalists championed pacifism, vegetarianism, women’s rights, and the kind of education in which a natural thirst for knowledge is cultivated and facts are not crammed into young minds.

Brooks is an accomplished writer, and she fluently depicts March’s sensitivity to his physical surroundings and to his companions. In Virginia, he is removed from his first post as an army chaplain, since his faith is too humanist to give solid comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers. Not believing in a literal hell, or in Christ as God, his view of humanity bumbling and stumbling itself into a mess does not sit well with the men or with his superiors. Critics of the book have found fault with March’s excessive self-flagellation, with his despair at witnessing pillaging and violence on the side of the Northern soldiers as well as on the Southern side. In contrast, the character of March in Little Women, although undeveloped, is one of stability and purpose – a father who steadies his wife and girls through their trials and sorrows.

March is transferred to a plantation whose absent owner supports the North and has leased the land to a Northerner come down to make a profit. March is to help by teaching the former slave children. The plantation has been ransacked both by the Union Army and local bands of raiders, who live on what they can pillage. Brooks’ depiction of the final devastation that takes place on the plantation reads like something out of Rwanda, and the source she cites does not match the unspeakable cruelty and horror which Brooks presents as commonplace. (When this kind of violence did occur, her source relates how the local residents rose up and administered their own justice after the sheriff and his men apprehended the assailants.) In Brooks’ landscape, there is no sheriff, and evil is done with impunity.

Brooks’ literary license ends up as an assault on the principles which Bronson Alcott propagated in his writings and teachings. An assault, because there is no surcease - there is no “balm in Gilead” found in the novel’s experience. Here history is not “unveiled” simply through engrossing characters and vivid landscapes. March, a broken man, or one who was never truly whole, creeps back to his family’s side, without hope and without redemption. This may be Brooks’ world, but it is not everyone’s.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hipster Puppies / by Christopher R. Weingarten

You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can sure sell one. Likely the case with more than a few titles like this one. The "author" of this pictorial isn't quite as exploitative as he seems and his real jokes are actually better than his photo captions. A music critic and author out of Brooklyn whose work has appeared in The Village Voice among other things, Weingarten is something of an authority on certain things hipster. His blog chronicles some of his more in-depth work of observing pop culture, mainly the incorporation of the canine species into the world of hipsterdom. The intro might actually his best bit, "Welcome to Hipster Puppies, the inaugural recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Snarky Animal-based Captions, Toilet-Tank Division... Traditionally, the people of my era use this time to rapidly flip throught the pages and mutter indignantly about how they could have just as easily written this [expletive].". Most of the dogs featured aren't actually puppies. But that wouldn't have been such a drawback if the pictures and especially the captions were better, or at least funnier. Then the book could have really taken off at the level of so many of its ilk like Snog: A Puppy's Guide to Love (636.700222 HALE) or Best Friends Forever (779.25 HALE), both by author Rachel Hale whose similar photo books are tremendously popular. The dogs, all of them personal pets from Weingarten's friends, aren't especially well-adorned enough to be really eye-catching and the cartoonish, Far Side-esque captions don't reach quite the appeal-level needed. But everyone should have their own opinion which is why books like this are always worth a browse through. (636.700222 WEINGART)

The Town / Chuck Hogan

When it comes to movies based on books, I usually try to read the book beforehand. During that interim period between reading it and watching the movie, it's a nice feeling to have in my head the purest form of the story, just the words and my imagination. I have all the details straight from the mouth of the author. Movies are a different format altogether, I understand that, but in translating a book to the big screen, most of those details are left out. So I try to get them in before the movie version invades my impression of the story.

In the case of the 2010 film The Town, however, I ended up seeing the movie first. While this isn't a review of the film, which Ben Affleck directed and starred in, I do have to say that it was excellent. You expect it'll be just a standard action flick about a bunch of bank robbers but it turns out to be much more engaging and interesting than that. I liked it so much that when I saw in the credits that it was based on the 2004 book Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, my interest was piqued. I don't read a lot of crime fiction, so I thought I'd give it a try.

I'm glad I did. While the movie is overall quite faithful to the book (except at least one major divergence), it lets you get inside the heads to a much greater degree of Doug MacRay, the head of the bank-robbing crew, and Adam Frawley, the FBI agent determined to bring him down. (For a commentary on the movie's adaption of the book, visit "Adapt This: Ben Affleck’s ‘The Town’ vs. Chuck Hogan’s ‘Prince of Thieves'".)

By the way, the library has both the book (FIC HOGAN) and the movie (DVD T). Both are called The Town — don't look for the book under the title Prince of Thieves like I did!

Doug MacRay is a career criminal in his 30s who's finally reached the end of his heisting tether. He's tired of the life and tired of The Town — Charlestown, the roughshod neighborhood and culture that spawned him and his buddies. In the book, it's claimed that Charlestown has a reputation for being a "breeding ground for bank and armored car robbers" although this may likely be apocryphal.

The book opens with MacRay contemplating his life just before he and his crew pull off a morning bank job:
He wasn't there for thrills. He wasn't even there for money, though he wouldn't leave without it. He was there for the job. The job of the job, like the thing of the thing. Him and Jem and Dez and Gloansy pulling pranks together, same as when they were kids — only now it was their livelihood. Heisting was what they did and who they were.
The ever-erratic Jem insists they take the manager, Claire Keesey, hostage as a contingency plan. The mask-wearing crew releases her when they're a safe distance away, leaving Claire badly shaken by the entire incident. And MacRay finds he can't get her out of his head either. In trying to do some follow-up work to discern what she's told the FBI, he soon finds himself engineering a meet-cute and then courting her in a desperate attempt to escape his world.

Complicating matters further is Frawley, who finds himself drawn to Keesey as well even while he's investigating her.

The tension builds as both Frawley and MacRay play this cat-and-mouse game of outwitting each other, with the unwitting Claire (who's much more likable in the movie than in the book) at the center of it all. I found myself rooting for the increasingly conflicted MacRay, wanting him to succeed in pulling off his greatest score yet — breaking free of the life and the law.

Hogan, who lives outside Boston, brings a great deal of detail to his descriptions of The Town, making the place much more concrete for those of us who've never been to the City on the Hill. But what makes the book really crackle was the dialogue. It's like the characters chew up and spit out asphalt when they speak, their words sharp, grating and profane. (I'd give you an example, but it's a rare sentence that goes by without an f-bomb.) Who talks like that? I have no idea, but I think they really bring the characters and their environs to life. Hogan makes you believe it.

Part of what makes the The Town such a fun read is that it's hard to categorize it into any one genre. Here's a man, a bad guy on many counts, who is trying to salvage the good that remains in him. And he's trying to do it with one of his robbery victims. It sounds crazy, but once you're in MacRay's head, you not only understand, you support it. There's the budding romance between MacRay and Claire, the fraying bromance between MacRay and Jem and the hero-villain dynamic MacRay and Frawley.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grown Up Graphics: Graphic Novels, Adaptations and Comics Geared Towards Adult Audiences

Strangers In Paradise / by Terry Moore
Katchoo is a beautiful young woman living with her best friend Francine until she meets David, a man determined to win her heart. As the love triangle heats up, Katchoo discovers something about her past which could upset everything even more. Contemporary life models and emotional depth highlight this graphic novel series. (YP FIC MOORE)

The Quitter / by Harvey Pekar
Comic legend Pekar is best known for his notable work in the celebrated American Splendor, chronicling his life as a downtrodden file clerk in Cleveland. The Quitter is another autobiographical comic chronicling his youth and early adulthood as an outcast Jew in an increasingly African-american neighborhood and his attempts and ultimate failures at various endeavors including a stint in the Navy and higher education. (YP FIC PEKAR)

Blankets: An Illustrated Novel / by Craig Thompson
In rural Wisconsin, two brothers discover the challenges of growing up as they confront broken friendships, first loves, disappointments and the duality of coming of age under the eye of sternly pious parents. Mostly a self-styled memoir of Thompson’s own childhood, this extensive book is among the most introspective and self-dissecting works of graphic fiction. (YP FIC THOMPSON)

Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth / by Apostolos K. Doxiades
This exceptional graphic novel concerns the philosophical life and legacy of Bertrand Russell. As he searches for absolute truth, Russell crosses paths with other legendary thinkers and tries to explain natural phenomenon through mathematics and logic. Not your average graphic novel, this is one of the few graphic works concerned with modern philosophy. (FIC DOXIADIS)

Tamara Drewe / by Posy Simmonds
In a graphic story which parallels Thomas Hardy’s classic Far From the Madding Crowd, Tamara Drewe is a new resident in the modern-day English Hamlet of Stonefield. Young, beautiful with a modest inheritance, Tamara is soon the talk of the town as several male suitors, one an author, another a rock star and a third a local farmer attempt to woo the spunky Tamara. (FIC SIMMONDS)

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth / by Chris Ware
36-year-old everyman Jimmy Corrigan lives a hapless life in Chicago as a lonely, emotionally-isolated man disenchanted with life until he suddenly hears from his long-absent father. Interspersed throughout the book are flashbacks to a century earlier when Jimmy’s grandfather, James, who was abandoned by his own father at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, dealt with similar problems. Ware's drawings are a good combination of subtle and provocative. (FIC WARE)

Ooku: The Inner Chambers: Vol. 1 / by Fumi Yoshinaga
When a mysterious disease kills off 80 percent of the males in feudal Japan, women have taken control of society with the remaining men carefully preserved as sperm donors in the Ooku, secluded quarters in which a collection male concubines reside. Things suddenly change when handsome Samurai warrior Yunoshi enters the Ooku. This adult manga is very richly illustrated and thoroughly original. (FIC YOSHINAG)

Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness: A Graphic Novel / by Reinhard Kleist
From his impoverished beginning in rural Arkansas to his success as a country crooner and delving into his emotionally volatile life filled with bitter depression and demons of drugs and alcoholism, the life of Johnny Cash is revealed in deft, artistic biography. German graphic novelist Kleist vividly manifests the literal and visceral ‘man in black’ in this somber-toned visual renderings of one of music’s greatest legends. (782.421642 KLEIST)

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale / by Art Spiegleman
Author and illustrator Art Spieglemann conducts interviews with his father Vedak, a survivor of the Holocaust, in this riveting narrative of a relationship between father and son and the harrowing legacy of Jewish persecution in Hitler’s Europe. The Jews are depicted as mice and the author/illustrator's talent is self-evident in both storytelling and aesthetic resonance. (940.5318 SPIEGELM)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Long Day's Journey Into Night: A Play / by Eugene O'Neill

Of all the brooding playwrights hailing from the Modern/Post-Modern era, Eugene O'Neill might be the most tragic and morose. Like Ibsen, Pinter, Beckett and even Albee, O'Neill paints the portrait life as bleak as any, his characters full to the brim with disillusionment and despair usually enacting scenarios in which escalating cycles of conflict crush the soul. The son of an Irish immigrant actor, O'Neill was born on Broadway and raised in the shadow of the stage until his father eventually gave up the life and moved the family to Connecticut. On the surface, it wouldn't appear that his early years were all that bad. He was educated at Catholic boarding schools, spent his summers at the family's cottage home and attended Princeton before dropping out and joining the Navy. After contracting tuberculosis, he spent several years in recovery at a sanitorium whereupon he officially began writing and publishing his plays and poetry. A regular among the growing Socialist scene in Greenwich Village and other parts of the Northeast, O'Neill was well-known by a number of early American Communists, notably John Reed and Louise Bryant--the film Reds (DVD REDS) even speculates on a love triangle between the three. Even for an Irishman, O'Neill's life was particularly steeped in alcoholism and depression, themes overwhelmingly depicted in his plays like "The Iceman Cometh", about a New York City bar full of hopeless drunks too afraid to go outside, and even "A Moon for the Misbegotten", one of his lighter works focusing on the life of his older brother Jamie who died at the age of 45. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is without a doubt his most autobiographical play, also perhaps his best one, evoking his family's thoroughly dysfunctional status just prior to O'Neill's entry into the sanitorium.

"If you can't be good you can at least be careful."

It seems a peaceful enough New England summer morning at the family cottage home of the Tyrones. Father James Sr. and mother Mary speak comfortingly to one another despite each's lingering preoccupations with the family's problems which include younger son Edmund's suspected tuberculosis and elder son Jamie's static life as a failed actor. A retired actor himself of moderately successful status whose long-running role in a single play provided financial stability but limited career opportunites, James has complicated his family's finances through faulty property acquisitions and poor decision making. Another far more hidden but much more devastating problem has been Mary's longtime drug addiction. Having just returned from another stint in rehab, she's strongly suspected by all three male Tyrones to have resumed her habit. Ironically James, Jamie and Edmund are each themselves alcoholics and their sly but honest attempts to find out info from Mary are received with cool retorts about their drinking. As the day wears on into evening, all four Tyrones escape the house for a while, the three males to get drunker and Mary to score a hit. When they return home near midnight all four are well-lathered up and ready for a fight.

O'Neill is regarded by more than a few of the well-informed as the best American playwright. While was never as popular as say Shaw or Noel Coward (both Brit contemporaries), perhaps not as structured as Miller, more subdued than Albee (a fellow Irish ex-pat) and certainly not as vociferous and loud as Tennessee Williams, he was one of the most keen observers of the human condition in all of literature. O'Neill's is perhaps not so much a style of representation as it is a personal tragedy from which he writes, a foregone conclusion of bereftness and desolation. But his hopelessness is far keener than any playwright before or since. Like with Pinter or Albee, there's an ominous repression of feelings and an inability to communicate emotions but nothing can remove the chronic, mutually bourne burden of doom from O'Neill's characters, something perhaps most well-manifested in "Long Day's Journey Into Night". The chief emotion among the Tyrone clan is a well-measured balance of rage and regret, thus making the sentiment most prominently evoked one of irrepressible misery. But their misery isn't something they're encountering for the first time, nor the second or even the last time. You get the sense that they're 'long day's journey into night' is exactly that--something they rise to reluctantly greet each day and violently retreat from with the onset of nightfall. There's a light at the end of the tunnel of their darkness but it's a familiar and unkind illumination, one they'd rather remain in the dark about than face. To face it means to confront a reality of fruitless immobility and recurrent misfortune. O'Neill never saw this particular play performed, never wanted to. Upon its completion in 1942, he sealed the manuscript in a vault with orders for it not to be viewed until after his death whereupon it debuted to obvious success. (812.52 ONEILL)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mind Book of the Year award announced

According to their website,, The Mind book of the year award is "is presented to a book, either fiction or non-fiction, which deals with the experience of emotional or mental distress."

Check out this year's shortlisted books for the prize on the link above. The Guardian has also posted a nice article exploring whether our perceptions of mental illness have changed since 1981, when the prize was first awarded. To read the article, click here.

Happily Ever After / edited by Jonathan Klima, w/ introduction by Bill Willingham

Ready for some more Fairy Tale retellings? Happily Ever After is the latest of its kind rehashing, with some clever alterations and tongue-in-cheek humor, the well-known, age-old fables and stories. Edited by John Klima and featuring an introduction by Bill Willingham, author and the "Fables" series which includes the latest novel edition, Peter and Max, this is a can't miss book with some great stories. Long established fairy tale franchises such as Snow White, Cinderella and The Emperor's New Clothes are reinvented, retailored and retread with pinache and nuance . . . and a little sprinkling of pixie dust. Some of today's most famous fantasy and fiction authors like Gregory Maguire (Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West), Susanna Clarke (Dr. Strange & Mr. Norrell) and Karen Joy Fowler (Sister Noon) join in the fun. Of particular note are stories by Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub; Straub's Cinderella retelling, "Ashputtle", is a must read and Gaiman's take on that all too familiar troll under the bridge is as good as it gets. Other authors include Charles de Lint, Garth Nix & Patricia Briggs as well as several newcomers. This a great volume of fairy tale retellings for any audience. (SF HAPPILY)

The Towers: A Dan Lenson Novel of 9/11 / by David Poyer

On the morning of September 11, 2001, US Navy Commander Dan Lenson is still a little peeved about not getting his promotion to Captain. Both he and his wife, who worked for the Secretary of Defense during the previous President's tenure, think it's a bit of a slight that such a decorated officer as Dan can't be promoted--he does have a Congressional Medal of Honor. So on this day, Dan's headed to the Pentagon to talk things over with some of the upper Brass who include some former classmates--Dan is a Class of '71 Naval Academy grad--while his wife is headed to New York for a job interview after the latest round of government layoffs. As he reads the morning paper, Dan sees the usual problems, mostly foreign conflicts and political overhaul and thinks that some things just never change.

When two hijacked airplanes fly into the twin towers and then the pentagon, both Dan and his wife are drastically impacted. Dan gets out of harm's way but loses contact with Beth and its a few desperate hours before he can find out that she's safe, having just barely escaped before the collapse of Tower #1. As Beth heals and the country tries to recuperate mentally and emotionally, Dan is assigned to a SEAL Team and deployed to Afghanistan where he and his men's top mission is to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and eliminate his Taliban regime. Though deployed to Afghanistan almost immediately, politics and red tape interfere with the military efforts. Meanwhile, Muslim-American Special Agent Aisha Ar-Rahim, though operating in Yemen, finds out just how fast the world can turn against people of her race and nationality. This is a great book on the a subject which affects everyone. (FIC POYER)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Today is International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day falls on Sept. 8 every year. According to the International Reading Association, the day is intended to renew the commitment of literacy professionals and leaders to those in the world who lack hope and opportunity because of their lack of education, including — and these numbers will bowl you over — "an estimated 860 million adults (two thirds of whom are women) who cannot read or write and more that 100 million children, again the majority female, who lack access to school." (My emphasis, the association's words.)

The event gained prominence in 1966, when the World Conference of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy took place in Tehran, Iran, beginning on Sept. 8. The following year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the date International Literacy Day kicked off the event's first official observance.

Some interesting literacy statistics collected by the International Reading Association:

  • The per capita income in countries with a literacy rate less than 55% averages about $600.
  • Teaching mothers to read can lead to a decrease in infant mortality of up to 50%.
  • 98% of all non-literates live in developing countries.
  • 52% of all non-literates live in India and China.
  • Africa as a continent has a literacy rate of less than 60%.
  • In all developing countries, the percentage of children aged 6-11 not attending school is 15%. In the least developed countries, it is 45%.

In the U.S.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, workers 18 and over with a bachelor's degree earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915; those without a high school diploma average $18,734.
  • American business currently spends more than $60 billion each year on employee training, much of that for remedial reading, writing, and mathematics.
  • Annual health care costs in the U.S. are four times higher for individuals with low literacy skills than they are for individuals with high level literacy skills.
  • Women in the U.S. who have little formal education are more likely than educated women to be in abusive relationships.
  • One-half of all adults in U.S. federal and state correctional institutions cannot read or write at all; 85% of juvenile offenders have reading problems.

The Girl's Guide to Homelessness: A Memoir / by Brianna Karp

Born in Southern California to a family of fourth generation Jehovah's Witnesses, Brianna Karp and her mother bounced around a lot, often displaced with Brianna in and out of foster homes. They didn't have a lot of help with abusive, philandering fathers and step-fathers. Dreaming of the day she could set down her own roots in her own home and determine her own outcomes, Brianna finished school, got a job as an executive assistant and thought she was finally beginning her new life at the age of twenty-two. But when the 2008 recession hit, Brianna lost her job and ultimately her home despite voracious attempts at finding employment. After six months of no-hope job searching, she began to blog about her trials. When her father committed suicide, Brianna inherited a travel trailer which she began lived in, stationing it in the local Wal-Mart Parking lot where others just like her had done the same. She began to blog about her situation, gradually gaining newer and ever more eye-opening acquaintances who shared her plight and could resonate with her circumstances.

Karp is a talented writer but there's been some issues with this book. The title is a little too misleading because even though the original blog title was "a girl's guide to homelessness", the memoir is a more about Brianna's own reality of a transient lifestyle rather than the truth of homelessness and destitution (she was never without a roof over her head). A strong argument could be made that her "homelessness" was really "joblessness" and that certain decisions (family relationships, spending choices, lifestyle patterns, etc.) may have preserved Karp's situation more than she admits to--choosing to live in one of the priciest and most economically volatile locales in the country (Orange County, CA) couldn't have helped matters just as saving for a European vacation and then flying to Scotland during her homeless stint doesn't really coincide with book's main emphasis. There's a definite resilience to her character though and a gumption not found in young people her age. Add to that a miserable childhood full of lies, mistreatment and abuse and the memoir is very admirable. Even her very open and vindictive bitterness seems somewhat acceptable and it was enough to get her a book deal and an highly laudable internship at Elle magazine. But, eh, you be the judge. (B KARP)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Life is Short But Wide / by J. California Cooper

Author Joan California Cooper, known to readers as J. California Cooper, was born in Berkeley, California and divided much of her younger days between Northern California and rural Texas. She began writing a performing plays as a very young child and even though much of her earlier work was done in private and hidden from public view, she succeeded in quickly gaining esteem for her scripts like "Strangers", "Loners" and "Everytime It Rains" which have been widely performed in a variety of platforms. As well as a playwright Cooper is a successful short story writer and novelist. Her 1986 book Homemade Love won an ABA prize and she's been honored with the American Library Association's Literary Lion and James Baldwin awards. Considered a bit of a recluse who prefers to keep her whereabouts as well as her age a secret, Cooper has been characterized as an author whose deceptively simple style evokes a wide range of deftly portrayed themes and ideas. Among her latest novels is Life Is Short But Wide (2010), about a small rural Oklahoma community whose simple family and generational personalities evoke an often overlooked place and time.

In early twentieth century America, rural Wideland, Oklahoma is home to a handfull of hard-working African American families struggling to eke out a living and live out their dreams. With the railroad station has come some prosperity and a few newcomers, but very little has changed from how Hattie B. Brown, the local octogenarian and storyteller, remembers it. Though at a loss for memory some times and never quite as surefooted as she used to be, Hattie relates the comings and goings of the folks of Wideland. Among the new residents, Hattie introduces the gregarious cowboy Val Strong and his part-Cherokee friend Wings, both of whom work to keep their head of cattle well-fed and well-stocked. Then there's Val's beautiful but less-friendly and sometimes bitter wife Irene who takes care of the couple's two daughters Rose and Tante, both of them stubborn and often bickering but not without their joy and good times. Alongside the Strongs are Joseph and Bertha, another couple and their daughter Myra. As the families cope with the hardships that come with changing times and fortunes, and people are born and pass away, the characters learn the importance of living boldly and squeezing out every possible moment of life, love and ambition.

Cooper is very good. Her portrait of American life, at once tender-hearted and down-to-earth is as heartwarming as it is poignant, is every bit as truthful to life as Willa Cather, Jane Smiley, Larry McMurtry or even Ernest Gaines (Life is Short But Wide will remind more than a few readers of Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman). The trials and hardships, ambitions and setbacks of each of the characters in the novel can't help but captivate the reader as they share lessons and sidenotes on living life to the fullest and appreciating those who make you what you are. Those who've read Cooper's work before will recognize familiar voices in this book. The characters don't differ too much from previous protagonists and supporting cast where the actions and reactions to the changing times and new challenges offer a coherent blend of sage-like endearments and charming authenticity. (FIC COOPER)