Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Long Way Home / by Robin Pilcher

English-born Claire Barclay's mother remarried Leo after the family lost their father to cancer. It may have been a blessing in disguise because Leo became more beloved by Claire than her biological father could have been. So when Claire, now living in New York as a restauranteur with her adoring husband Art, receives word that Leo is ill and needs full-time care, she flies back to Britain, back to Leo's quaint Scottish manor, to be with him. The situation may seem relatively uncomplicated--Leo's physically incapable of living alone but refuses to leave his home--but it presents a problem for Claire and Art who, even though they agree to relocate temporarily to Scotland, are presented with Leo's lingering financial woes as well as his medical ones. To add to things, Claire's teenage love Jonas Fairweather is back on the scene as a local realtor/financier and Claire has to deal with her emotional feelings--she abandoned her romance with Jonas after meeting Art by chance just prior to her first year of college--as well as the logistical constraints relating to Leo.

Pilcher is actually the son of Rosamund Pilcher (cozy romance author of titles like Winter Solstice and An Ocean Apart) and shares many of his mother's stylistic charm and delicate relationship nuances. He's been well-received for previous titles and has found success in the mainstream as well as niche markets, however this book is a bit bland by comparison. While the plot is perfectly plausible, the story hovers too much around Claire's issues and though intermingling segments highlight her earlier life as well as her now happy partnership with her husband, there really isn't enough conflict to involve the reader in her story or emotions. The other characters read a little too formulaic. They're all a little too much like one another to provide any originality as the drama unfolds, leaving things a little too tame, even by cozy standards. The author's clearly not another Nicholas Sparks, nor is he Debbie Macomber, but his other titles may intrigue readers more than this one. (FIC PILCHER)

Dada: The Revolt of Art / by Marc Dachy

Nothing in the art community previously could prepare people for Dada, a movement beginning in Zurich in 1916. A meld of abstract art and avant-garde, Dadaists were the edgiest of the full-fledged anti-establishment artists, breaking all the rules, keeping none of the past traditions alive, rebelling against any type of "isms" and broadening the scope of what art could be. This new generation of visionaries were certainly not aiming to please the critics. 20 years later Adolf Hitler used Dada to point out what high art was not, using an exhibition of Dada pieces in sort-of derisive motif. So what was it exactly? The movement can best be described as "direct relationship between an artist and his art--as opposed to the art that until then had been imposed by social constraints." Figures like Hugo Ball, Jean Arp, Sophie Tauber and Marcel Duchamp essentially reconfigured artwork that removed the medium. Dada wasn't purely painting; it wasn't sculpture. And while you could call many of the pieces a collage, an amalgamation, it wasn't purely dimensional, necessarily, in any respect. Even as it maintained its integrity by conceptually representing an artist's inception of ideas, it did so by remaining void of popular styles. Dachy's little book, part of a larger series of humanities publications, is filled with Dada creations as well as the story behind it. Best of all, it manages to concentrate the material inside a very manageable, easy-to-get-through volume of artistic concepts. (709.04 DACHY)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Cemetery Girl / by David Bell

"Let me tell you something about my daughter."

The day Tom Stuart's daughter disappeared is what he replays most in his mind. 12-year-old Caitlin had taken the dog for a walk, something Tom and wife Abby had agreed was a good responsibility/privilege, and hadn't come back. What unfolded in the following days, weeks, months and eventually years was a classic suburban disaster story. Frantic searches amped up by media coverage and community panic gave way to fruitless leads followed by inconsequential suspects and an ultimate withdrawal of investigators from the case. The grieving couple's marriage then began to dissolve, Abby thinking it time to move on and Tom not ready to give up hope. After four years, Abby does move on, organizing a memorial service to declare Caitlin legally dead, even giving her a burial plot; Tom doesn't even attend for much of the ceremony and Abby starts to move out of the house later that day. But then, only a little while later and nearly at random, Caitlin's found--alive. Discovered by police after some new information surfaces, a teenage Caitlin reappears, disheveled and malnourished, but breathing and at least physically alright.

The miracle isn't quite as luminous as Tom envisioned. His daughter is home and safe and, at least for the time being, the family is back together, but the situation is far from stable. Caitlin isn't talking. It's not as if she's incoherent or uncommunicative, she's just not saying what happened, even requesting a stay of questions concerning all that's gone on. And though Tom still can hardly fathom that his daughter might've actually have been a runaway rather than a kidnapping victim, the thought lingers, becoming, while not quite the whole truth, a notion intermingled with what actually went down. To say the least, his daughter's disappearance, time away and awkward reappearance has done Tom's own well-being no favors. His psyche's shot, his mind plays tricks on him (Or does it?). He may be seeing things that aren't really there and the reckless way he's gone about trying to find answers--both before and after Caitlin's return--has only served to alienate his wife, discredit his convictions and complicate his relationships with the law enforcement officials who are still searching for "the guy", the man his daughter won't tell him about and the one person ("a bastard to be sure") who holds the key to everything.

Perhaps if it weren't for the cover which lends this book a less original flavor, giving it more of a YA feel, Cemetery Girl could've taken off at a level similar to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, In the Woods by Tana French or even an earlier Stephen King. And even though the novel and its author have gotten their due credit from the people who truly matter, the book is a still something of an underground phenomenon, not quite mainstream. The praise is certainly warranted. It's not just the story--a taut blend of well-conceived realism and subtly imbedded cliffhangers--that pushes things forward, climax to climax, revelation by revelation, but the densely layered psychological adventure steadily creeping toward a crescendo. Tom Stuart lost something he will never get back, even when he does technically get back the thing that he lost. Nothing seems to satisfy the deepest ache of his soul, a soul still tormented by an under-nurtured past and unsettled family history. Even finding a solid lead, his child, then the perpetrator, and ultimately justice can't quiet his desire for the truth of why his daughter may have preferred another life. This can portray him as not an all-the-way likeable character; easy to identify with, but not totally sympathetic. As the ultimate pitiable victim, a parent who's lost a child, he doesn't earn a lot of brownie points for the way he brazenly points the finger (about more than one thing), first at the police, then his wife, his half-brother, the kidnapper . . . going the whole round before finally getting to himself. Nor is he shy about acting on impulse and taking the law into his own hands. But can you blame him? Bell thinks that maybe you can, to a degree. It's a hard sell, to be sure, this re-fabrication of natural reactions of a parent to their own child's kidnapping. But it's the key to the story's true success, almost a de-victimization of the injured party whereby a heinous, truly abominable injustice wrought on an undeserving family, heaped on top of which is the maddening reluctance of those in charge and the dissolution of a marriage, is twisted around in thoroughly believable fashion, creating a story about the tenuous balance between paternal love and obsessive control all tied up within a damaged, driven man. (FIC BELL)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Devils in Exile / by Chuck Hogan

Neal Maven returns home from Iraq to find that the country he risked his life defending can't offer him much in return. Hundreds of applications and inquiries can't even land him a full-time job and the work he does get scarcely makes ends meet. By chance when he's seen expertly disarming a would-be thief at his night job as a parking attendant, Neal's introduced to a friendly stranger, Royce, another veteran, and a new line of work where his still-amped-up soldiering skills can be put to good use. It's a highly dangerous but highly lucrative occupation in which Royce, Neal and three others, all professional soldiers, infiltrate high quantity drug deals while they're taking place, ripping off the cash and disposing of the dope in quick fashion. The planning part of the operation can be tedious, each heist meticulously planned, and none of the others quite know where or how Royce gets his intel, but the money tends to make the hassle and any troubling questions go by the wayside. It's not just the money but the lifestyle and the girls that come with it which help Neal temporarily forget about his own fears ("Trouble seems to have a way of finding me.") and worries until some subtle missteps coupled with a flawed maneuver help the Feds get wise to Neal and the "Sugar Bandits."

Crime writer Hogan has found success in recent years with his fast-paced thrillers highlighted by morally ambiguous characters caught up in their own self-escalating conflicts. Prince of Thieves, reviewed on this blog some months ago, was adapted into a major motion picture, The Town, and served up much of the same criteria: blue collar Boston underdogs are lured into lives of petty crime and struggle to find a way out. In this case, the situation conveys at least a more patriotic, if not a more moralistic angle. Neal's boss Royce manages to convince Neal and his fellow recruits, with remarkably little effort, that the people they're stealing from are the real evildoers and the product they're disposing of after each little engagement is helping to save lives in the long run. He does this after dishing to his new pupils on the unfair way returning vets are thrust back into civilian life lacking the skills, and more importantly the mindset, to live a normal, honest life. The government trained them to wage war on America's enemies and that's what they're doing, so to speak. If they make a disproportionately enormous profit in ripping off other criminals, then so be it. This aspect of the story might work OK depending on your moral code and even despite the sketchy, insincere way Royce comes across, Hogan's first-person narration through Neal renders him a believable enough character to buy the scenario. The problem has to do with the girlfriend. Royce's lady Danielle used to be the resident senior goddess at Neal's old high school when Neal was a freshman. She's still up there on the pedestal, at least in Neal's eyes, though it's difficult to tell why. She's cranky, crabby, manipulative and generally abusive to Neal who she singles out as a sort-of errand boy. It doesn't take much to get her upset or stressed, moods she remedies with cocaine and other illegal substances. This plot element isn't the only thing detracting credibility from the story, but it may be the most annoying. Otherwise the book is a fun read, exciting and action-packed with good descriptions and a relatable context. (FIC HOGAN)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, with Elizabeth & John Sherrill

While this book became a best seller after its publication in 1971, it does not enjoy the status of a “great book”, except to readers of the Christian faith and others who are drawn to the book’s spiritual lessons.

Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch evangelist, had already written some books before this one - compilations of events and experiences illustrate Christian faith. These events were her testimony, as she spent the greater part of her last thirty years traveling, speaking and working with missionaries throughout the world. Although she had told her story many times, Christian writers Elizabeth and John Sherrill worked to make “The Hiding Place” a definitive account of what she and her family went through as defenders of the Jews in World War II.

Over half of the first part of the book is taken up with introducing the reader to the Ten Boom family, who lived in Haarlem. The father was a watchmaker. At the beginning of the war, his wife had passed away, as had three of her sisters who had lived with them. Of his four grown children, two were married and only the two unmarried sisters, Corrie and Betsie, still lived with their father. Betsie, seven years older than Corrie, had a kind of anemia which was not understood at that time, and so was “sickly” and was expected to live at home and not marry. Corrie had suffered an early disappointment in love when someone who she loved and believed to love her in return instead satisfied his family’s expectations by making a “good marriage”. This circumstance gave Corrie her first real lesson in hardship.

As she is sobbing brokenheartedly, her father lovingly comes to comfort and counsel her. Interestingly enough, he does not tell her that there will be other chances. He says she has two choices, one to smother and deny her love, giving rise to bitterness – or to give up her own feelings and ask for God’s in return. Not God’s love for her, but God’s love for this man, which is so much greater than her own.

Moments like these are the kernels of Corrie’s life, which are what sustain her during imprisonment and provide the impetus for her missionary work after the war. During the war, her family shelters Jews from being taken by the Germans. They become involved with the underground movement and have a secret compartment constructed in their house for Jews to hide in during a raid. They are eventually arrested. While in the local jail, their aged 84 year old father becomes ill and dies in an overcrowded hospital, left unattended in a waiting area. Corrie and Betsie spend two months in a Holland prison, and are reunited in a Holland concentration camp where they live for three months before being transported by cattle car to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women in Germany. Betsie, already ill, survives only two and a half months there before her death.

Although the flow of the narrative is disjointed, the book successfully illuminates key events for the reader interested in suffering and its implications. In Ravensbruck, Corrie changes. She is human - she hates the enemy, the sadistic guards and the cold and starvation and vermin- but she changes. Partly through her sister, who has compassion for everyone, partly through words in the Bible, which they smuggled into the camp. Corrie’s time and place in our history make the book worth reading. Whether or not it’s a “good read”, it’s a read that resonates.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ice series / Anne Stuart

How do you like your heroes? If you like them morally ambiguous, deadly and taciturn, you may want to give the Ice series by Anne Stuart a whirl. Stuart has been at her craft for 35 years — she holds a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Romance Writers of American — and her experience is evident in the sure hand she wields when it comes to the characters, pacing and conflict in these romantic suspense stories.

The Ice series is composed of six novels so far:

1. Black Ice
2. Cold As ice
3. Ice Blue
4. Ice Storm
5. Fire And Ice
6. On Thin Ice

A heads-up if you're one of those people who has to read a series from the beginning: Here at Moore Library, we've got No. 2-5 in the series. So I haven't read the first one, Black Ice, or the most recent one, Thin Ice, which is actually only available through Amazon in their Kindle ebook format. (Next month it will come out as an audiobook.) But rest assured that these books can easily be read as standalones; Stuart provides you with what you need to know in each one and doesn't leave you wondering what's going on or who's who.

The Ice series revolves around the flinty-hearted operatives of The Committee, a shadowy international organization that fights terrorism with a ruthless, ends-justify-the-means mentality. Stuart uses a similar storyline in each: An agent on a mission from the Committee finds his (or her) plans inextricably linked to another person, typically a civilian who's in the wrong place at the wrong time. The operation goes awry, and the two are forced to go on the run together. Literal and figurative pyrotechnics ensue.

Yes, it's formulaic, but Stuart knows how to mix it up just enough to provide readers a pleasing combination of familiarity and variety.

As Stuart says herself in the video above, she's not for everyone, but if she is, she works really well. I think that's quite true. The spooks in the Ice stories aren't the gallant knights-in-white-armor types. They're stone-cold killers who often expend a great deal of energy debating whether or not to off the person they're corralled with, seeing them initially as an annoyance and liability. And when they're not in killer mode, the men in particular, they're usually cranky, mean and mocking.

But Stuart makes it work. She uses that dissonance between the two protagonists to create heat and tension. As their humanity is revealed, the male characters grow on you, as they do the the main female characters. Their crazy courtships, if you can call them that, play out amidst a backdrop of exotic locales, life-or-death situations and nefarious villains.

Nor is it the men who always save the day. One of series' main characters is a female Committee operative with formidable skills herself. But it's the relationship between the two main characters that serve as the heart of the story. And given that these are romantic suspense stories, there's never really any doubt how the end will play out. But Stuart, if she's to your taste, makes the journey worth it.

Check out this video to hear from Stuart herself on the series' conception:

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems / by Henry Petroski

". . . a scientist studies what is; an engineer creates what never was . . . by extension, science is the study of what is; engineering is the creation of what never was."

Engineering might be the most important thing in the world. Science, knowing how and why things work; Politics, knowing how and why people work; and, Liberal Arts, interpreting how and why people and things work, simply doesn't cut it. How can Science (and Math) be appropriated to meet need? What can knowledge, abstracted information, do for me? Chemistry alone can't heal, equations won't shelter and biology by itself can't nourish. Mere knowledge is useless without applying the concepts incorporated within the prescribed ideas. It takes engineering, in it's functional role, much of it the "inherent practicality of simply actuating the empirical properties of nature . . . to account for the structural, economic, environmental, and other factors that science often does not consider but which are vitally urgent to our lives." Science can only take an idea so far before engineering must get involved. Or, as Petroski so aptly puts it, "scientists warn, engineers fix." That's why this book and its author, writer of several similar titles, is so important: to explain, in very linear terminology and coherent fashion, exactly what engineering (and the role of the engineer) does to not only enhance life, but to stabilize the balance between people and nature.  (620 PETROSKI)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hailey's War / by Jodi Compton

22-year-old Hailey Cain is back home in Southern California after washing out of West Point. Discharged just prior to graduation for undisclosed reasons, she's back where she started without a degree, a commission or anywhere to go. It's not like she's destitute but her home life has never been stable: her father, an Air Force sergeant was killed in the line of duty, and her mother and ragtag clan of relatives, all transplants from West Virginia, aren't all that hospitable. The one family member she can count on, same-aged cousin and music industry up-and-comer, is a reliable counterpart but not someone Hailey can live with forever, especially after an unfortunate accident makes her presence a conspicuous hindrance. A true drifter now, she migrates to San Francisco, taking a job as a bike messenger until an old friend from middle school, now a gangbanger in a female Latino set, asks a favor. Seeing it as a way to make some money (she's well compensated for her efforts), Hailey takes the gig, agreeing to transport an illegal Mexican teenager across the border to her home in Mexico. But everything goes wrong when an ambush abruptly ends their journey and ruthless criminals abscond with the teen, a girl secretly pregnant with a mysterious love child, and nearly kill Hailey. The act sets in motion a crisis for Hailey who, deciding she can't just walk away, embarks on a journey taking her through the violent underworld of gang culture and organized crime from the Mexican borders to the streets of LA and further. It's a personal vendetta that won't end nicely.

In what passes for a less adrenalized but more believable Kill Bill or "Alias" type story, Compton pens a commendable third effort about another tough-as-nails gal who just won't quit, even when she's been shot twice and left for dead in the Mexican desert. It's not a perfectly credible story. There's ample deficiencies in the way Hailey's situation is oriented, lots of it about her past, her exit from the US Military Academy and frankly awkward relationship with her cousin. But the quality of the writing is good, very good. Compton has a true gift for pacing, masterfully conscious of the precise instant to make transitions. There's rarely a time when the narrative loses ground to attention span. It's this exact blend of characterization and sequencing that prevents the story from verging into overblown femme fatale romanticism. Even though Hailey's far from a fully-centered character, her more sentimental qualities not quite counterbalancing her full-on battle-ready demeanor, the author's ability to put her in but plausible scenarios makes this book a page turner without becoming a guilty pleasure. (FIC COMPTON)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Recent Humorous Novels

Lunatics / by Dave Barry
Philip Horkman and Jeffrey A. Peckerman first meet on a soccer field in Fort Lee, N.J. during a girls' 10-and-under league championship game after Horkman calls Peckerman's daughter offside. Though initially only a mild disagreement, the battle between Horkman, a coarse, "forensic plumber," and Peckerman, a pet store owner, soon escalates into an absurd fight leading to several wacky shenanigans. (FIC BARRY)

The Sisters Brothers / by Patrick deWitt
In the heart of the Old West, a man known only as The Commodore orders bumbling assassins Charlie and Eli Sisters to track down and kill a grizzled prospector named Herman Kermit Warm. During their journey from Oregon to the Sierras, the pair confront a strange cast of characters including a witch, Indians, a parlor full of drunken floozies and a gang of murderous fur trappers. (FIC DEWITT)

Ranchero / by Rick Gavin
Nick Reid is an ordinary low-key guy doing odd jobs at a rental store in the backwater Mississippi Delta until his boss sends him out to repossess a television from no-account hick Percy Dwayne Dubois. Refusing to give up his TV, Percy Dwayne hits Nick upside the head with a fireplace shovel and, with TV, wife, and son in tow, makes a hasty getaway in Nick's borrowed 1969 Ford Ranchero. Now Nick, out of a car and soon to be out of a job, has no choice but to track Percy Dwayne down. (FIC GAVIN)

Pym: A Novel / by Mat Johnson
Having been laid off from his job as a teacher of American literature, Chris Jaynes becomes obsessed with the book The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only full-length novel Edgar Allen Poe ever wrote. Inspired by a mysterious slave narrative which may confirm the truth about Poe’s novel and its mysterious island, Jayes buys a boat, hires a crew and sets sail after Poe’s mythical island. (FIC JOHNSON)

The Ask / by Sam Lipsyte
Recently laid-off university employee Milo Burke is doing whatever he can in odd jobs to help his family. Then his old boss, the college dean, offers him his job back under one condition: Milo must get a wealthy alumnus, who just happens to be Milo’s old roommate, to donate a large sum of money to the university. (FIC LIPSYTE)

Dollarapalooza, or, The Day Peace Broke Out in Columbus / by Gregg Parr
Disgraced former professor Vonn Carp returns to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to take part in his father’s lifelong dream, the startup of a general store called Dollarpalooza. When the store falls on hard times, partly due to a “Wow-mart” moving in across the street, Vonn stumbles upon a new business model to make a difference in people’s lives “one dollar at a time”—he’ll answer any question any customer may have for one dollar. (FIC PARR)

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady / by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
In 1953 during a faulty nuclear experiment, Marylou Ahearn had her body contaminated by Dr. Wilson Spriggs. The result was the death of Marylou’s daughter, Helen, from cancer 10 years later. Now, in the present, 77-year-old Marylou is determined to get revenge on Dr. Spriggs, going so far as to move to Florida into a house right down the street from where he now lives and plotting his doom in quirky fashion. (FIC STUCKEYF)

The Family Fang: A Novel / by Kevin Wilson
Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang are slaves to their art, so much so that they’ve incorporated their only children Annie and Buster (popularly known as Child A. and Child B.) into their oddly subversive work. Escaping as soon as they can away from their circus-like childhoods, Annie and Buster ultimately return years later, their lives now in disarray, only to be caught up in one last performance. (FIC WILSON)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Ethical Assassin / by David Liss

Needing money for college, 17-year-old Floridian Lem Altick hits the road the summer after high school as a door to door salesman of encyclopedias. It's a scammy business, a ruse run by con artists who prey on the rural poor by getting them to think they're making an "educational investment" for their underpriveleged children. And though Lem is actually good at his job, a surprise to everyone including him, he disapproves of the predatory nature of what he does. In the midst of making a pitch one afternoon, he witnesses the cold-blooded murder of his customers, a young couple in a trailer home, by a stranger not much older than Lem who appears out of nowhere. The assassin, later introduced as Melford Kean, agrees to spare Lem's life in return for his continuing silence. He assures Lem that the deaths were no great loss ("These people had it coming."). It's not like he has much choice; Kean forced Lem to put his prints are on the murder weapon and there was at least one witness who saw him enter the trailer at the time of the killing. Going back to his job still wide-eyed with shock, Lem tries to forget about it all only to run in to Kean later that same day, maybe a coincidence but probably not. Before he knows it, Lem's downtrodden gig of peddling overpriced, outdated encyclopedias merges with a strangely alluring world of professional killing and exploitation as his life, up to now a disappointment, is never the same again.

Liss, a scholar of mostly 17th and 18th British literature and author of several successful historical novels, pens a worthy standalone in this book about an assassin with a hyped-up Machiavellian view of life and a casually manipulative way of getting things done. The story meanders around from one plot element to another--Lem and Kean's meeting, corrupt sherriff/mayor involved in the investigation and the overarching criminal underground which infiltrates everything--but the pacing is solid and the author's characterization really shines at depicting his supporting cast, a myriad of sordid types in a world of shady salesmanship, drug rings and sleazy small town cops. Liss, a San Antonio resident, might not quite be up to the level of a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard but he's not far off. Even with his other work not really in the same vein, or even the same genre, The Ethical Assassin catches on as an entertaining read, unique really in its setup with a normal, down-on-his-luck guy confronted by some quirky, real-world circumstances and an enigmatic villain/hero he can't get away from. (MYS LISS)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

There's a new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature in town

And not everyone is happy about it.

Award winning author Walter Dean Myers has been named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Myer's many fans of his books such as Monster, Shooter, Fallen Angels, and many more are happy to have a celebrated author speak on behalf of Young People's Literature, but there is at least one voice of dissent.

Commentator and former public school teacher, Alexander Nazaryan has written a scathing rebuke of the choice in a blog for the New York Daily News, calling Myers work 'insipid'.  He claims that all Myer's work does is reflect the worst of life and failing to inspire or elevate beyond it.  Instead he believes kids and teens should be reading the classics such as  Homer's The Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. However, he doesn't ever say why kids and teens couldn't or shouldn't read both classics and contemporary literature, which is something that Myers can do in his role as ambassador. You can read his missive here and decide for yourself if Myer's is the best choice for ambassador.  To make up your mind, you can also listen to this NPR interview with Myers himself here. Also, check out his wonderful books in our childrens, young adult, and biography sections.  Ask a librarian and he or she will gladly help you find our full holdings of his titles.

Let us know what you think about his being named ambassador in the comments.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Unbearable Lightness: a Story of Loss and Gain by Portia De Rossi

Portia de Rossi comes from Australia, where she expressed interest in modeling at an early age and latched onto the profession as a vehicle to get what she needed in life – money, acceptance, admiration and love. Her mother, left by her father to raise Portia and her brother alone, loved both of her children. But Portia felt the need to excel and to be a comfort to her Mom, and made it a point never to be in trouble or needing anything. On the contrary, she was determined to pull out all the stops and provide for anyone who she loved. What she didn’t realize was that by raising the bar so high for herself, she couldn’t accept any weakness or imperfection in her performance and came to believe that others were judging her on the same level.

When she becomes an actress and a star on the Ally McBeal television show, Portia memorizes acceptable answers for fan and media questions, regardless of how true they are, and decides she has to be a size six since sample outfits generally come in that size. With a tall and rangy physique, Portia has been accustomed to dieting ever since she was a model and was expected to weigh in as “thin”.

What follows is a life of bulimia and finally anorexia. In De Rossi’s story, she tells her side of events so convincingly, that if you weren’t aware of her actual starving herself, you might be fooled. She perfectly describes how a person can zone into a part of their body and see it as fat or ugly, regardless of its actual condition.

Her collapse comes (lucky for her) before it’s too late, and the end of the book is all about how she worked her way towards health, taking the emphasis of right or wrong out of food, and just letting herself eat. Her recovery phase is a bit too rushed and presented to you as a fait accompli – as though there was this confident stunning superstar just waiting to emerge. De Rossi credits a lot of her recovery with her resolutely gay lifestyle, marrying Ellen DeGeneres, while it might just be that relationships can help.

When we have an epidemic of fat in America, does the prevalence of eating disorders increase as our average weight goes up? And why do our media images resist leaving thinness behind? All of these issues come to mind with this timely memoir. If we can’t exactly walk off into the sunset with Portia and Ellen, at least we can mimic their food choices. The best trick is to forget about food, and get used to feeling hungry, in moderation. Easier said than done. Well we can always long for the 40’s to come back, and hope for an end to factory farming and technology bringing us the latest and greatest salty/sweet crunchy melt in your stomach taste combination.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dying Inside / by Robert Silverberg

Even among the more super-prolific writers of Science Fiction, a genre in which it's not uncommon to see authors tally over a hundred titles, Robert Silverberg is one who's work has reached some exceptionally lofty heights. Since the 1950's, where even as a student at Columbia (Class of '56) he published a handful of short fiction, he's been repeatedly nominated for Hugos and Nebulas, winning on several occasions, and consistently catching the eye of readers both in and out of the SF genre. A lifelong New Yorker, he moved to San Francisco in the early Seventies amid a pending divorce to his first wife. Ironically the period was one of his most fruitful--Dying Inside, among others, was individually conceived and penned in mere weeks. Upon its original publication the book, about a middle-aged telepathic who's steadily losing his powers, was released to less favorable acclaim. Since then, however, it's been realized by the critics and the reading public for the masterpiece that it is. Locus magazine labeled it "one of the best science fiction novels of all time," and more than a few of Silverberg's literary peers have celebrated it as a trailblazing work of literature.

"It was like that all the time, in those years: an endless trip, a gaudy voyage. But powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes grayer. Entropy beats us down. Everything fades. Everything Goes. Everything dies."

David Selig can read minds. Born with the extraordinary gift of telepathy, he's lived a life enhanced by his superhuman ability to probe the conscious thoughts of those around him. But it's a talent, a psychological marvel to be sure, hidden from all but three people and not quite blessing people may perceive it as. Put simply, having ESP hasn't helped make David any better. While he can manipulate circumstances and reactions, he still can't get a leg up in society. He's still a loser. Always a bit of a social misfit, a bitter outcast with not a lot of looks or charm or even ambition to capitalize on his unusual talent and parlay his prospects into a dream job or beautiful wife, David's life of knowing what people are thinking--often more of a deterrent from engaging it in the first place because it just reaffirms his negative worldview and dismal self-concept--has devolved into a frustrated, distancing, thoroughly miserable existence. That he's a capable individual is well-evidenced; he obtained a degree from Columbia and several mid-level office positions before flaking out on the 9-5 scene. Now at 41, he writes papers for Columbia undergraduates who willingly pay a modest sum for his services.

David thinks his life would be better if he had more meaningful relationships. He's had fewer friends than most, his condition thwarting more intimate acquaintances and removing him from a lot of social situations. There have been two or three girlfriends and some one-nighters, but relationships, especially with women, have a tendency to become toxic, inevitably leaving a trail of enmity and bad blood despite his best intentions. His family relations aren't so great either. His mom and dad, still around although David doesn't go to see them much, essentially gave up on him during adolescence when he didn't pan out to what they wanted. Even his sister Judith, who his parents adopted at the advice of a child psychologist when David was 8 and one of the three people who knows of his abilities, hates him outright for his sixth sense. But there's another, bigger problem currently. At present, with his 42nd birthday looming, David senses something's wrong, not just with his life but with his gift. His telepathy, which even with all its dismal side-effects has been his life's only real joy, still a mystifyingly wondrous tool capable of offering amusement, diversion, education and even ecstasy all at once, is dwindling. His clairvoyant ability to know others inside-out, to probe the consciousness of casual acquaintances, and even see the souls of strangers bared before him in removed and admittedly voyeuristic though not malicious fashion, is growing dimmer to the point where it very soon may be extinguished altogether.

Initial reaction from Silverberg's publisher on his newest creation back in 1972 was one of offhanded surprise. His editor, knowing him personally, felt that Dying Inside was a rough autobiographical sketch morphed into science fiction. The author denies this although similarities between him and Selig--they're both Jewish, both New Yorkers, both Columbia grads, both writers, etc.--are telling. That the novel is a gem, a true ace of spades richly drafting universal themes of knowledge, communication and essence of existence onto the printed page, is a fact that cannot be overemphasized. It's brilliant. And while not exactly a straightforward narrative, the delivery shifting from first-person to third and back in random fashion, the book excels at giving the story a good balance of background and plot development. It's funny too. Like Kurt Vonnegut, the Silverberg's acrid style, satiric slant and glib interpretations of his protagonist reads fast and cynical though not without admonishing critically important, and often subtly revealed, truths about our world and the human condition. Parallels can of course be drawn to other fictional characters, and perhaps even a few scattershot theories on the actual or similar conditions, but none are as elucidating as Silverberg's conception. There is nothing un-grounded or superhero about David Selig. He's not a vampire, changeling, witch or mutant. He's just a guy, a balding middle-aged flunkie with the capacity, and to some degree the control, to monitor the spectacular phenomenon of the mind at work in his fellow man. It's an ability he's never been without and he doesn't know what he'll do if he loses it. (SF SILVERBERG)