Monday, November 28, 2011

The Five Red Herrings: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery / by Dorothy Sayers

All Lord Peter Wimsey wanted for his holiday in the highlands was to sleep late, reflect on his misspent youth, catch some trout and possibly fit in a round of golf. The quaint village that he and Bunter take up residence is actually a type of artist colony where an assortment of painters--all a bit odd but talented in their own way--have set down roots. One among them isn't really odd though, he's just mean. Campbell Quick is a barrel-chested, red-bearded Scotsman with a temper to match his drinking habits and a peevishness overshadowing any artistic skill he possesses. "He's a devil when he's drunk and a lout when he's sober", they all say. So when he turns up dead in the river the day following an evening in which he rowed with six of his fellow artists, the question for Lord Peter is to find out which one of them murdered Campbell, a man best characterized by Wimsey's eulogy, "Nothing in his life quite became him like the leaving of it." To do so the gentleman sleuth and his crafty manservant will need to eliminate the five artists,  the "five red herrings", who had the motive and possibly the means but not the opportunity to dispose of the undesirable Campbell.

If you didn't know him, it might be easy to overlook Lord Peter Wimsey as a minor fictional sleuth from the golden age of mystery fiction. The amateur "gentleman detective" is nothing like the big names of the period--Poirot, Maigret, Mason, etc.--who are all 'in the business' so to speak, all detectives by trade with solid credentials and proper training. And though he usually shirks the perception as quickly as it's made, Wimsey can come off as something of a nosy, entitled aristocrat. He doesn't work at job or need money, his butler does everything for him short of clip his toenails and though he's an amateur criminologist of the highest order, he has no real reason other than avid interest to associate himself with crime and murder. But while not featured in the sheer volume of fiction occupied by a Poirot or a Perry Mason, he's aged as well as any of them, his "mind like a razor", discernible eye for detail and inimitable charisma winning over hoards of readers. Always the bon viveur with an incurable optimism and contagious confidence, Wimsey can't help but, well, project 'whimsy' everywhere he goes, winning as much respect as admiration and garnering appeal with his sophisticated charm and personality. It's here where Sayers, with her manifestation of the 'gentleman detective,' really distinguished herself, managing to create an admirable, truly estimable character from someone with a manservant, lots of money and lots of free time--later works would see Wimsey take a seat in the House of Lords but for the most part he's just another member of the idle rich set bouncing around Europe's glamorous hotspots. It's harder than it looks because with a few discrepancies, the svelte, polished protagonist might have easily become a buffoon like Bertie Wooster or even a distancing snob, something like James Bond maybe. But it's nothing like that. When people are difficult, Wimsey is class and composure personified. Where they might feel inferior, he deftly erases social barriers. Where there's a case to be solved, he never oversteps his authority but never capitulates to official crime solvers who sometimes resent the butting-in of a posh member of the nobility. He may not be officially affiliated with law enforcement, but he's amply capable, has a free maneuverability, abundant resources and is never afraid to get his hands dirty--all things which make the books, every one of them, serious fun. (MYS SAYERS)

New York Times announces 100 Notable Books of 2011

Looking for a good book or 100 to read?  Your holidays will be filled with some of the best reading 2011 had to offer after checking out the New York Time's 100 Notable Books of 2011.  The list cover fiction and non-fiction, so readers have a plethora of choice.  Check out the full list here.

Did they miss any Notable titles?  Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Didn't You Come For Me? / by Diane Janes

It's been twelve years since her infant daughter Lauren's abduction and Jo Ashton continues to receive photographs of her baby in the mail, the words "I still have her" scribbled across the back. Even though she's remarried and moved with her new husband and stepson to an isolated part of the country, she still gets them. The police insist it's just a cruel joke, a creepy but harmless taunt by someone just wanting to stir things up. But Jo knows it's not just a prank. She knows that whoever sent them has monitored her every move and is at least sincere about letting her know it. And though she can't be sure of who or where the kidnapper is or even if they're telling the truth about Lauren, Jo has a gut feeling that her daughter's out there somewhere, still alive. There's another side to the story though, an even more sinister element reaching further back into Jo's past even before the birth of her daughter to a scarred, repressed childhood marked by horror, abuse and murder. As things in her life start to unravel, Jo's deepest hopes and darkest fears begin converging in ways she could never have foreseen.

Janes was nominated for a CWA (Crime Writer's Association) and Dagger award for her novel Pull of the Moon, a story of long hidden secrets in which a deathbed confession leads the protagonist down a path of intrigue and betrayal. It was a book critically acclaimed by both readers and critics for its psychological suspense and marked Janes as a noteworthy new author in the genre. Why Didn't You Come For Me? is another solid story concept with Janes effortlessly erecting a lurid, creepy tale. The demented premise of a woman being taunted by her child's kidnapper, a sordid past of the protagonist and a wonderfully situated setting all contribute to the book's appeal. The story is so good that the character of Jo doesn't quite measure up to the gravity of her situation. There are times where she seems as much a fish out of water as a heady protagonist and in certain instances, she's largely outweighed by the magnitude of the conflict. (MYS JANES)

Thank a teacher this Thanksgiving holiday

Since 2008, the day after Thanksgiving has been designated as the National Day of Listening. After the turkey's been eaten, it's a great chance to sit down with your loved ones, particularly your older loved ones, to ask them questions about their lives, going beyond the superficial to find out what really has molded them into who they are today and how they feel about their world and what they've seen. It's certainly a nice alternative and respite from the commercial frenzy of Black Friday.

The nonprofit Storycorps, which works to preserve the stories of everyday Americans, is the group that started the National Day of Listening. StoryCorps encourages you to sit down for an hour and, when you do that interview, record it for posterity. Share those stories with your family and pass them down for future generations to enjoy. It's a priceless family heirloom.

This year's theme — to thank a teacher who made a difference in your life — doesn't even involve interviews, although you're certainly encouraged to do that if you like. Pay tribute to your teachers by taping your message and uploading it to YouTube or posting it on Facebook or Twitter (@storycorps, #thankateacher). The medium doesn't matter; it's all about message.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Summer Streets 2011: StoryCorps
Photo by the New York City Department of Transportation;
available through a Creative Commons license

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Day After Night by Anita Diamant

In conjunction with a focus on the Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust, a writer or filmmaker often raises the question as to whether hope is still possible after such experiences. It’s not a question that goes away, because since World War II there have been other holocausts, which we now usually call genocides. The writer Anita Diamant was intrigued to learn about Jews “escaping” in 1945 from a camp. But the camp was a detainee camp, not a concentration camp. It was in British occupied Palestine, the land that is now Israel.

The League of Nations had charged Great Britain to make Palestine a home for Jews in 1922, but by the end of World War II, Britain refused the flood of Jewish refugees coming to Palestine from Europe. There were some 250,000 of them who made their way secretly by ship from Europe to Palestine. Many were immediately sent back to Europe, but some were kept in camps on the island of Cyprus. Others were held in Atlit detention camp in Palestine, south of Haifa. It was from this camp that members of the Jewish underground movement against British occupation organized the “breakout” of 208 refugees to a nearby kibbutz. When the British soldiers caught up with them, the kibbutz refused to give them up and local school children and residents came and demonstrated in front of the camp in a gesture of solidarity for the refugees’ plight. In the face of the adverse publicity, the British relented and these refugees were allowed to relocate in Palestine.

There are some ironies in how the British ran Atlit, circumstances that recall the “final solution”. Some were transported from the ship to Atlit in boxcars, the camp had barbed wire and a guard tower, and when they arrived they had to strip and go into the showers for delousing. Diamant shows us how traumatic these conditions could be, and yet how at the same time things like the food, the space between bodies, and lumpy mattresses were welcome.

As in The Red Tent, her novel about Dinah of the Old Testament, Diamant wants to bring to light the role of women in history and to investigate any insight that their female perspective can shed for us on historical events. She has crafted a novel of four main female characters who have come from their separate hells to arrive in Atlit. One was a partisan fighter, one a concentration camp survivor, another was hidden by a Dutch farmer, and the other was taken in by a neighbor in Paris who ran a brothel. They all have their hidden devils and unassuaged grief to carry. As Leonie, the former prostitute, sees it, they each walk balancing their heavy load like a native bearer, keeping it "exquisitely balanced."

I found the book absorbing in its evocation of the camp, of the difference between the new arrivals and the old, between the refugees and the Palestinian Jews there to help them, between the British soldiers and the resistance fighters. There are so many snapshots in the book that it takes some effort to connect the background material that Diamant casually offers to slowly build the past lives of the main characters. While there is renewed hope - in a possible relationship, in helping take care of children, in feeding people on a special occasion - mostly the inhabitants weep or show off to each other. There are parts of them frozen by what they went through and what they witnessed.

The resistance fighter is defeated inside by her almost certain knowledge that her mistakes in the field caused her comrades’ death. The girl in the brothel learned to please her German customers but was brutalized anyway, finally running for help to a nearby convent. You might wonder why she didn’t run before this – she had to be beaten down and stripped of any special consideration that she had won for herself. The camp survivor has vowed never again to praise God, not a God that killed her family and all of her existence. The Dutch girl had been “hidden”, but was used to provide sex for a Dutch farmer and his friends. She finally told his wife and was turned over to the Gestapo the next day. She escaped with others through a hole in a cattle car and returned to Amsterdam, to learn, as she had already guessed, that her entire family was dead.

Diamant calls the book Day after Night, but what she shows us is how the night lingers on. The escape to the kibbutz provides some drama for an ending, but the book doesn’t generate real momentum on its own. None of the women really change, except the camp survivor. She begins to venture out of her shell, by extending sympathy to a young boy.

What the book finally feels like is a crafted concoction, with the politics and realities parceled out in small quantities, to seem like “real life”, because everything is understated. But Diamant shouldn’t be so careful to avoid life head on. The dramas that we live come and confront us, and our changes encompass more than just the weight of remembering them.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President / by Candice Millard

The irony was that James A. Garfield never wanted to be president. Born into rural poverty in Ohio in 1831, it wasn't an easy road for the future chief of staff who, much like Abraham Lincoln, had to self-educate himself early in life. Limited financially, Garfield would eventually earn a Bachelor's from Williams College in Massachussetts and then a law degree before being commissioned as an officer in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Major General by the time it was all finished. In 1862 Garfield, then only 31, obtained a congressional seat in the House of Representatives and thereafter figured prominently in politics, serving 9 consecutive terms until 1880. Yet all of his merits and conspicuous achievements were, by all accounts, mere window dressing. Garfield was a true public servant, one of the few men who lived to advance the ideals which the country stood for. Never swayed by crooked political machinery and always opposed to "place-seeking" and career advancement, his actions warranted a high degree of public scrutiny but also a hefty amount of sincere praise which culminated in his rather awkward nomination for the presidency in 1880. Despite his personal objection, Garfield eventually capitulated and, though never expected to actually win, campaigned alongside his running mate Chester A. Arthur for the Republican cause. When he did win it was considered a minor miracle and had more than a few people speculating that the new President was merely a puppet in a ruse cooked up by the delegates to get their real man, Arthur, into office.

One person certainly amused at the outcome of the election was Charles Guiteau. Having experienced many of the same setbacks in life as the President himself, the squirrely little man from Wisconsin had tried his hand at many an occupation only to fail or quit at all of them. Many, including Guiteau's own father, considered him insane and various attempts were unsuccessfully made to have him committed. Following the 1880 election, Guiteau, intending to solicit employment in the White House, began stalking Garfield in person. By 1881, after being turned down for an office on more than one occasion, Guiteau resolved it was God's will that he kill the President. On July 2 of the same year, after pursuing Garfield in secret for several months, he encountered the President and Secretary of State James Blaine at Baltimore train station whereupon he fired two rounds of a .44 British Bulldog pistol, one winging the arm of the President and the other piercing one of his lower vertebrae and lodging near his spleen.

Garfield wasn't immediately killed. In fact he initially stood a good chance of survival. Doctors worked around the clock to locate the bullet only to worsen the President's condition with unsanitary procedures and detrimental hygiene, ultimately resulting in an infection which hastened Garfield's death in September of 1881 nearly three months after his assassination attempt. Guiteau meanwhile was immediately apprehended and tried. He persistently maintained he was innocent of all charges, claiming he had only shot Garfield to make Arthur president. An insanity defense was not out of the question as all who stood witness to his trial could see he was clearly deranged. But in the end he was executed in front 2,000 spectators, all watching as the madman danced his way up to the scaffold to be hanged, shaking hands with the executioner and requesting that a poem he had written while in prison be read prior to his death. This, one of the more colorful, though tragic events of American history is certainly a story worth telling and carries lessons worth learning. Millard's previous work The River of Doubt, chronicling Teddy Roosevelt's post-Presidential Amazonian adventure, was highly successful, winning the Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. This latest outing is as entertaining though perhaps not as discretely rendered. Destiny of a Republic runs in the same vein but the story has so many different dimensions it's hard to find a seminal theme to latch on to. There's two vastly different men on a path to destruction, a country still in post-war turmoil, a shady political climate and then the tragedy involved with the medical negligence. That's not even including the interesting tidbits about Garfield's family life which included the death of two young children and the survival of an unlikely marriage to his wife Lucretia. Or even the potentially life saving efforts made on the part of Alexander Graham Bell whose influential inventions attempted to locate the bullet inside the president's body by remote detection. It's a worthy effort however by an author who's fascinated by her subject and mainstream readers as well as history buffs will be pleased with the riveting manner in which the events are brought to life. (973.84092 MILLARD)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bed / by David Whitehouse

The 45th birthday of Malcolm "Mal" Ede's life marks twenty years since he climbed into his bed, his childhood bed, the one at his parents' home, and never left it. He now weighs over half a ton and his bed is now three beds--two king-sized and one single--tied together. Even though Mal can't get out of bed, can't even move, he really doesn't want to. He's satisfied to stay put, a choice which has attracted some oddly favorable attention. His condition has fostered a sort of perverse notoriety with a cult of followers convinced he's making a bold statement about modern life. Meanwhile his family, his mother and father, younger brother and fledgling girlfriend, passively stand by, observing the "truck-size block of sausage meat packed into a pair of cheap tights" that he's become.

Why won't he get out of bed? As a child, Mal was always the one who "liked to be the first to do things", the one with the wondrous curiosity about life who never felt that anything abnormal was unacceptable. He'd stand in the rain all day staring upwards until catching pneumonia. He'd go nude for hours, sometimes days at a time, refusing to wear clothes, even on outings to the supermarket or the park. And while his father, a morosely put-upon figure--"Dad didn't work, he toiled"--cursed his son's peculiarities and made solid attempts to rectify his behavior, he lost too many battles to Mal's willful insistence. The boy just wouldn't conform to standards; he loved the novelty of different experiences. But over time as the whimsicalities of childhood gave way to the mundane responsibilities of adulthood, Mal's spirits faded and his spunky resolve to live differently turned to disillusionment. Any incentive to live at all promptly went with it. His ultimate decision to remain in bed permanently, an act much enabled by his incredibly accommodating mother, was simply a reaction to what was expected of him as he grew older. The situation hasn't been popular with everyone of course. Along with his father, Mal's younger brother, who used to love but now loathes his morbidly obese counterpart, can't help but wish ill on his elder sibling--"Mal's death is the only thing that can save this family because his life has destroyed it".

With a well-crafted story narrated in first person by the protagonist's unnamed younger brother, Whitehouse has debuted a novel which is not only rich in acerbic wit and humor, but soul-searching in its existential implications. Bed isn't all satire, nor is it a serious allegory or gimmicky fable. It's a subtly poetic anecdotal piece highlighted by the obligations of familial love under extreme circumstances. As the narrator jumps back and forth in time, relating how all of this came about, we're introduced to a family very much like any other middle class English household where the natural developmental characteristics of children failed to apply to someone. Mal's condition (note the pun on the name) may be clinical depression or some other mental disorder (Peter Pan Syndrome possibly) though it's never indicated. But details of his life, the origins of his behavioral irregularities and his steadfast determination to remain immobile aren't so odd as to warrant exclusive attention. Mal's simply a product of his own, sound choices and his family's the affected party, something the book elucidates with incredibly amusing drollery and candor. (FIC WHITEHOU)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NaNoWriMo Pays Off: 11 Published books written during NaNoWriMo

In celebration of NaNoWriMo Mental Floss has compiled a list of 11 books written for the book-in-a-month contest that have been professionally published.

Check their list out here

Learn all about NaNoWriMo here.  You still have 15 days!  Get writing!

New Medieval Fiction

Lady of the English / by Elizabeth Chadwick
There are many in the English royal court who’d like to prevent Matilda, daughter of Henry I, to succeed her father on the throne. Some within her own family even, like her widowed mother’s second husband, fight to preserve not only a preferred line of succession but to keep a woman from being the monarch. But Matilda’s adversaries don’t know the strength she possesses to remain steadfast in her duty and lead her country. (FIC CHADWICK)
The Burning Land: A Novel / by Bernard Cornwell
In ninth-century Britain, the once youthful King Alfred the Great has grown old and feeble and is ill-equipped to defend his kingdom against the marauding Viking raiders. Having to hire outside help, he secures the aid of vicious mercenary Uhtred the Saxon, a mercenary who defends the honor of the king amid perilous circumstances and treacherous schemes. (FIC CORNWELL)

Holy Warrior: A Novel of Robin Hood / by Angus Donald
In 1190 A.D., Richard the Lionheart has assumed his rightful position as King of England. His first order of business is to take up arms in a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land with his most trusted nobility in-tow. Among them is a fearless knight named Robin of Locksley, as good a fighter and as battle tested a warrior as Richard possesses. (FIC DONALD)

The King’s Witch / by Cecelia Holland
Under the grueling circumstances that encompass the Third Crusade, death by disease and pestilence is as common as being killed in battle. Fortunately for King Richard, he has a secret ally in a mysterious woman claiming to have been sent by his mother. The woman, Edythe, remains under suspicion until her extraordinary healing gifts come into play at just the right time. (FIC HOLLAND)
Lionheart / by Sharon Kay Penman
One of only two surviving sons of Henry of Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard is no sooner on the throne following his father’s death than he’s engulfed in a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. Marching toward a pivotal war against the formidable Saladin and the Muslim hoard, Richard must defer his duties as King to his younger brother John. (FIC PENMAN)
Nightshade: A Hugh Corbett Mystery / by P.C. Doherty
Hugh Corbett, in service of his majesty King Edward I, is sent to investigate the case of an renegade local lord who’s refused to relinquish a priceless relic he found during the Crusades. Furthermore, the nobleman in question has accused several Knights Templar of heresy and is suspected of murdering a few. (MYS DOHERTY)

Chalice of Blood: A Mystery of Ancient Ireland / by Peter Tremayne
In 670 A.D., the murder of an esteemed monk and scholar has occurred at the Abbey of Lios Mor in Ireland. The killer has absconded with an important manuscript containing some cryptic writings. With haste Abbot Iarnla sends for savvy sleuth Sister Fidelma and her companion Brother Eadulf to investigate the matter. (MYS TREMAYNE)
The Enterprise of Death / by Jesse Bullington
Awa is a Moorish slave accompanying her mistress on a sea voyage when their ship is marooned on an island off the coast of Spain. When her party’s captured by a necromancer, an ancient sorcerer with the power to raise the dead, Awa comes under his tutelage, ultimately learning his black arts only to have him place a curse on her when she attempts to escape. (SF BULLINGT)

I am a Genius of Unspeakable EVIL and I want to be your CLASS PRESIDENT / by Josh Lieb

Do you remember the Animaniacs, the Warner Brothers cartoon that ran from 1993 to 1998? It was an after-school favorite of mine. Funny, wacky, clever and subversive. It turns out those qualities still ring true with me. I found all of them in Josh Lieb’s I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President. And while this book can be found in our children’s department at J FIC LIEB, its story resonates with the evil genius in us all.

Oliver Watson of Omaha, Neb., knows what everyone sees when they look at him: a sad, overweight schlub of a seventh-grader. That’s precisely the image he cultivates to hide who he really is: the third-richest person on earth. And aside from his brindle pit bull mix Lollipop (who, incidentally, Oliver’s trained to only respond to commands in Basque such as Hil Ito, which apparently translates to "Kill but make it look like an accidental drowning"), he pretty much loathes everyone on the planet.

This story kept me entertained from start to finish. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Marc Thompson, and he does a spectacular job with the many voices in the book. The 180-degree difference he makes between evil genius Oliver and intentionally pathetic Oliver is particularly gut-busting.

If you read the book version, Lieb litters it with snide asides from Oliver that add another extra kick to the dripping scorn he has for his fellow man. Certainly, it’s written for kids, so it has its fair share of potty humor, but Lieb's an executive producer of The Daily Show, so there’s plenty of satirical humor to go around for adults as well.

Using his preternatural brilliance, Oliver has amassed a fortune that he uses for his own secret devices. Like buying the factory that manufactures his English teacher’s cigarettes just so he can plant mocking messages like “Your diet isn’t working” on them. Or inventing a chemical that induces sudden sleepiness as well as flatulence (perfect for bullies). Or hiring bodyguards he dubs Pistol, Bardolph and Nym or a particularly persuasive negotiator called the "Motivator."

But all the money in the world can’t buy Oliver what he wants most. His dad’s approval.

As an unnaturally precocious newborn, Oliver overheard his dad lamenting how Oliver’s birth may have robbed him of his chance to go out and change the world. Twelve years later, Oliver still insists doesn’t care what his dad thinks but we all know better.

When Oliver is nominated for class president (as a cruel joke), the incident makes his dad misty eyed remembering his own childhood experience on student council. This incites all-out war in Oliver’s eyes.
What once gave him pleasure to remember will now only remind him that he isn’t so special after all. I will shame him.

His fat, selfish, stupid son is going to run for class president. And I am going to win.

It’s going to be easy.
But as it turns out, not so easy. What ensues is a hilarious, tangled web involving rare Boba Fett dolls, zeppellins, lots of camera surveillance and middle school girls, both the giggling sort and the diabolical.

I actually thought for a good part of the novel that all of Oliver’s tales were pure hokum, that we were going to find out these fantastical tales of his Secret Worldwide Empire were all in his head. And that would have been okay because they’re so entertaining. But you find out they’re real, which makes it even better. (In that sense, Oliver's way ahead of Brain, the megolomaniacal mouse from Animaniacs bent on world domination.)

You get to see just exactly what a 12-year-old with limited regard for morals and ethics would do with unlimited access to money, resources and henchmen. It's a thing worthy of the story’s frequent use of hyperbole.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hunger (2008) DVD / a Steve McQueen film; starring Michael Fassbender & Liam Cunningham

"There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence.” --Margaret Thatcher (1980)

By 1980, The Troubles had reached a crescendo. The previous year had witnessed the deaths of a Northern Irish MP, a member of the Royal Family and 27 British soldiers. All were killed in IRA-orchestrated terrorist attacks. In an effort to combat the extremism, the Thatcher-led British Parliament overturned the "special category status" for the IRA members, essentially declaring all IRA sponsored terrorist attacks as "criminal" in nature rather than "political". The legislation removed a multitude of hindering compliance procedures from the due process of apprehending and interrogating Republican Army prisoners. Without "special category", wartime laws of the Geneva Convention counted for nothing. Prison conditions were solely determined by the British Government who didn't hesitate to use their advantage. Many Irish loyalists (some yet to be convicted) were already under heavy lock and key, kept isolated in maximum security prisons like Northern Ireland's Maze facility where staunch resisters like Bobby Sands were among the first to feel the affects of the new policy. In protest, Sands and the other inmates revolted against their ever-worsening circumstances by refusing to shave, refusing to bathe and ultimately by refusing to eat. In October of 1980 and then again in January of 1981, the 26-year-old Sands, a devout Catholic and the leader of one the most resolutely determined sections of the Provisional Republican Army, orchestrated a hunger strike, a steadfast rejection of all food in hopes of prompting a reversal of the special category status.

In what might best the characterized as a docudrama or politically-tinged art film, the movie described above is, more than anything, incredibly disgusting. Not "disgusting" as in cinematically or conceptually bad; on the contrary, it's very nearly perfect in that regard. It has to do with the truly revolting on-screen subject matter, scenes depicting a viscerally repugnant, subhuman atmosphere operating within the Maze prison walls. Two prisoners inside a sealed-off 6 x 8 ft cell squatting (literally) in their own undisposed-of waste 24/7 is all you need to know. Very little dialogue highlights the film; images do most of the talking, the moments of merciless, stomach-churning realism speaking for themselves. Fassbender had to go on a medically monitored crash diet to portray the emaciated Bobby Sands in his final hours. It paid off. He gives a truly gut wrenching (pun intended) performance to complement the record breaking cinematography--the film had the longest single scene in movie history at 16 and half minutes. It's an unforgettable viewing experience, that being if you can stomach the putrid scenes of prisoners painting cell walls with their own rancid feces. Sands' legacy as a political prisoner, martyr, criminal and/or terrorist is still up for debate. Margaret Thatcher certainly didn't think that Sands' death warranted hero status. But if the film is an indication of anything, it's a testament to the near insane lengths men will go to for what they believe in. Sands died in Maze prison on May 5 1981 after going 66 days without eating. Nine other prisoners followed his lead, dying from self-imposed starvation in the weeks following until Thatcher finally relented, re-granting special category status to IRA prisoners. (DVD HUNGER)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Time travel books through time

Last week, Emily Temple posted a lovely article on Flavorwire with an awesome list of time travel books in literature. Some of them are books you may have read in your college lit class, others are just plain good readin'. I am so happy she included Diana Gabaldon's Outlander -- one of my favorites, but I would have put Kage Baker's Company series in there too. It isn't as well known, but it is so well-written! Click here to read the article yourself.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What It Is Like To Go To War / by Karl Marlantes

Marlantes, acclaimed novelist and author of the Vietnam War Epic Matterhorn, delivers another fascinating account of wartime experience. This outing is a far more personalized testament to the nature of military combat. Marlantes' has quite an extensive knowledge about the experiences involved in joining the military, going to war and returning home. The book is more a blend of in-country reporting--transcripts from the author's own field notes are included--accommodated by insider knowledge of the feelings which go through a soldier's mind on the battlefield, the psychology of fight or flight instinct and the simultaneous sense of fear and exhilaration. As much as his own experiences are taken into account, the author delves into other territory. The process of recruitment, obligations involved in commitment to duty, just war theory and the concept of military engagement. A scholar as well, he's equipped to elaborate on the more controversial issues like the economic disparity between those who die fighting and those who live by handing down orders. It's a worthy reflection by an individual more than up to the task of fleshing out the multi-faceted aspects of war and combat. (959.70434092 MARLANTE)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Publisher's Weekly announces best books of 2011

As the year draws to a close, we are seeing all the top books list start coming in.  Publisher's weekly chose their top ten from all the non-fiction and fiction they reviewed this year that they say, "stayed with us, that we talked up, handed around, and of course argued about among ourselves."

Check out their top ten list and  their full best books list by clicking here.

The ten best-of-the-best in no particular order is:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides FIC EUGENIDE

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock FIC POLLOCK

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett FIC PATCHETT

After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh SSC AFTER (coming soon)

Bossypants by Tina Fey 792.7028092 FEY

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie B CATHERIN (coming soon)

There but for the by Ali Smith FIC SMITH

Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson B HEMINGWA

One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina B WAINAINA

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens 814.54 HITCHENS

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

Many people have read this book, first published in 1960, or at least have heard of it – how a white writer took medication and underwent sessions of ultra-violet light, and with the help of applying stain, darkened his skin enough so that he could shave his head and pass for an African American man. He travelled and stayed in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi and Alabama, for a period of about six weeks. He did it because at that time segregation was still in effect. There were laws in the South - “Jim Crow” legislation –maintaining separateness, and written and unwritten policies in the North that supported their own segregation of education, jobs and housing. However, most whites in our culture didn’t think that African Americans were segregated from whites because of their skin color. If segregation was just about skin color, then racism had to be in effect, and few Americans believed that they lived in a racist society. Instead, there were a lot of ‘reasons’ and ‘truths’ that were supported and repeated and passed on, which indicated that the separation was necessary because of ‘what colored people were really like’. Since African Americans had once been slaves, and their cultural background was African, they were believed to be simpler than whites, more childish, less disciplined, less idealistic, less intellectual…the list was endless.

John Howard Griffin was born in Texas, in 1920, and had inherited a benevolent racism from his family, who accepted segregation but modeled “Christian” attitudes toward African Americans, and never used the “n-word”. Griffin himself was shocked when at age 15 he attended school in France and witnessed black students sitting at the same lunch table as white students. As an adult writer, when he wanted to investigate the phenomenon of black suicide, he was stymied by the response of many African Americans to his survey. They implied that he would not be able to learn about African Americans with his “white” thinking. He became intrigued and was challenged to get past this color barrier.

The book is written in diary form, starting from a week before he decides to switch over and how he stays with a friend while taking the medication and changing his appearance. We share his fear and trepidation as he takes his first step out into the New Orleans night, to wait for a bus. All his former experience and what he was accustomed to as a white man are gone, as shop owners who had smiled at him before now served him with blank faces. More than a stranger in a strange land, Griffin experiences the suffocation of feeling eclipsed, as he searches for toilet facilities and a place to get a drink of water. Drugstores will sell him cigarettes, but he can have no access to their soda fountain, where white customers can have water served to them. Griffin spends his days applying for jobs, only to be met with refusal after refusal. One employer even explains that his company “doesn’t want your people”. Menaced one night by an aggressive young white man through dark streets, forced to eat and drink when the opportunity arises so as not to miss it, the final nail in Griffin’s coffin is the ‘hate stare’ – those whites whose faces change into dislike and repulsion when they come into any near contact with him.

As much as Griffin is sickened at his reception as a black person by whites, the warmth many African Americans show him is heartening to the reader, evidence of our common humanity in the hardest of circumstances. At one point Griffin is stranded hitchhiking along the Mississippi coast, and is offered the hospitality of an African American laborer returning to his home. With just two rooms for the man and his wife and six children, Griffin has to sleep on the floor. But the children, living so far out in the country, are enchanted to have a visitor. The wife serves beans for supper. The five candy bars that Griffin contributes, along with his presence, turns the meal into a party. And all of the children want to kiss him goodnight. It’s only after the family is sleeping that Griffin has to get up and creep outside and hold a silent vigil for the emotions and realizations struggling within him. As the children kissed him, he thought of his own children, and could see no difference. These children had no real idea yet of what they were up against. The father worked under a never ending debt to the company store, yet the mother and father still worked to bring up their family, expressing thanks for their healthy children.

After the book was published Griffin was burned in effigy in his home town of Mansfield, Texas, and he and his parents finally moved to Mexico to escape the threats and social isolation. (A bit ironically, I noticed that the American Library Association declared Mansfield “a literary landmark” in February of 2011.) A film was made of the book in 1964, but was criticized as being “overly melodramatic and unsubtle” by the New York Times. Someone should make a good movie of “Black Like Me” and give us our past as it really was, instead of the currently showing film “The Help.”