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20 December 2011

Book Review Throne of Fire

The Throne of Fire (Kane Chronicles, #2)The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another rollicking adventure from Riordan.  These Kane adventures are not as enjoyable to me as the Percy Jackson epic, if only because I'm much more familiar with Greek and Roman mythology than I am with Egyptian mythology.  Egyptian mythology is darker and more serious, which makes these books a little less playful than the Percy Jackson/Heroes of Olympus books.

However, Sadie Kane is a really fun character and Riordan captures her voice, and the angst of a 13 year old girl, very, very well.

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15 December 2011

Book Review Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment KitchenJulie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars


But I read the whole thing.  The rags to riches of an early blogger intrigues me.  And she started a trend, right?  We're all now trying to find the schtick that we can blog about so that we can write a book and hang out in our pajamas.  But Julie Powell just did it to do it.  And it changed her life.

I wanted to come over to her apartment and clean.  Several times.  I laughed out loud.  Several times.  The lobster chapter rang home heartily, as I remember not being able to eat lobster as a youth in Jamaica because I couldn't stand the idea that we boiled them alive.  Me too, Julie.  Me too.

The insertions of snippets of Julia Child's life were nice but not well-formed;  they didn't really help the narrative in the way I think they were designed to but I still enjoyed getting a little glimpse and think that perhaps I should read more Julia Child.

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06 December 2011

Why Beau Jest?

Why Beau Jest

“So Sarah has this Jewish boyfriend who is neither Jewish nor her boyfriend.”

That’s the tag line I wrote for advertising materials for our production of Beau Jest. I almost added the additional tag, “Discuss.” Remember the Mike Myers Saturday Night Live skit Coffee Talk? Myers played Linda Richman, a stereotypical Jewish middle-aged woman who wears gaudy sweaters, large, dark glasses and has big hair, which she constantly adjusts. “The chickpea is neither a chick nor a pea. Discuss,” she’ll say. Or “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is neither Mormon nor a tabernacle nor a choir. Discuss.”

Beau Jest is wonderful fodder for a Linda Richman tangent. Sarah is a nice Jewish girl from a nice Jewish family who has fallen in love with a nice Christian boy. But she tells her nice Jewish parents that she’s dating a nice Jewish doctor. It’s all nice. Until her parents invite the Jewish doctor, who doesn’t exist, to Passover.

Cue Guess Who’s Coming to Seder?

Beau Jest is funny, with its convoluted-interpersonal-relationships-based-on-mistaken-identity plot line. But it also engages themes that have deeper meaning; how important is a shared religion to a relationship? And how important is a shared religion to building a cohesive and strong extended family?

According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, more than 28 million married or cohabitating Americans - almost one quarter - are interfaith. For some, the choice between their faith, which often incorporates their family and community, and the person they love is fraught with challenges and heartache. For others an interfaith relationship represents the ultimate reconciliation ceremony; it brings together the best elements from two faiths.

On the one hand, some believe that each member of an interfaith family will hold different beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe and the result will be irresolvable conflict. On the other hand, conflict over faith can happen in an intrafaith family as well; even with a shared set of beliefs, interpretations of those beliefs can differ. Two people of the same faith can take a religious text and come up with two vastly different interpretations and each person believes that his interpretation is truth because it’s based on scripture. Irresolvable conflict.

So how important is a shared religion to building a cohesive and strong extended family?


 Krista Lang Blackwood Director of Cultural Arts
Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City

15 November 2011

Book Review The Sabbath

The SabbathThe Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thoughtful book about the importance of the Sabbath because it is about "time" not about "space." 

"There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.  Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern." 

"We must conquer space in order to sanctify time.  All week long we are called upon to sanctify life through employing things of space.  On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time."

Though this is a Jewish text, it isn't only for Jews;  folks of all stripes can get something out of Heschel's thoughtful, if sometimes scattered, disorganized, and repetitive, prose:

"Technical civilization is man's triumph over space.  Yet time remains impervious.  We can overcome distance but can neither recapture the past nor dig out the future.  Man transcends space, and time transcends man."

"Every one of us occupies a portion of space.  He takes it up exclusively.  Yet, no one possesses time.  there is no moment which I possess exclusively.  This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me." 

"We share time."

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14 November 2011

Book Review The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

The Influencing MachineThe Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A graphic novel that gives you a history of the media in visual bits that bite deep.

The main point;  "We hunger for objectivity, but increasingly swallow "news" like Jell-O shots in ad hoc cyber-saloons.  We marinate in punditry season with only those facts and opinions we can digest without cognitive distress.   I see our most hallowed journalistic institutions crumbling, I see our business model that relied on mass audiences being displaced, with stunning speed, by one that survives by aggregating millions of tiny, targeted audience fragments.  The reality that anyone with a cell phone can now presume to make, break, or fabricate the news has shaken our citadels of culture and journalism to the core.
The once mighty gatekeepers watch in horror as libelous, manifestly unprofessional websites flood the media ether with unadulterated id.  Terrifying.  I can't wait to watch it play out."

Something oxymoronic about a book like this pointing out that we, as a people, have lost our ability to read in-depth for long periods of time.  But would I have picked up a 500 page tome on this subject?  Probably not. I blame Google.

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12 November 2011

Book Review The Three Musketeers

The Three MusketeersThe Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rereading in my middle age;  I flipped between two translations the Bantam classic translation by Lowell Blair and the Tor Publications anonymous translation, discovered and introduced by Steven Brust.  The Tor edition was highly recommended as being the closest to capturing the clever language of the original French but I found it so clunky and impregnable that I lost the story-line.  When I switched back to the Blair translation, the story came alive once more.

There have been a million stage and screen adaptations focusing on the diamond tags but I found myself wondering why someone hasn't made a psychological thriller out of the Lady de Winter/Fenton section.  Creepy as hell, she is.

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22 October 2011

What's Jewish About Avenue Q?

I have a new job as the Director of Cultural Arts at the Jewish Community Center of Kansas City.  Though all Jewish Community Centers are structured a bit differently, most of them have a fitness component, an education component and a cultural arts component;  like a Y with college classes and great performances.  It's a brilliant formula for creating community and I'm sure to write more about it in future blog posts.

One of my marching orders is to expand the offerings of the Cultural Arts department and increase the level of "Jewish-ness," for lack of a better word, in upcoming performing arts seasons.  Another of my marching orders it to find ways to connect the current performing arts season to Jewish culture.

This is easy with a play like Beau Jest, coming up in December.  But it wasn't so easy with a production like Avenue Q, which opens November 5th.

What's Jewish about Avenue Q?

I had to answer this question for an essay that is featured in our Playbills.  It stumped me for quite a while.  Then, in one of those flashes of clarity that always seem to happen at 3:00 a.m., I lit upon a connection.  Here's what I wrote for the Playbill.  Enjoy.

One of the main tenants of Jewish thought is the concept of tikkun olam; repairing the world.  Making it a better place. 

One of the most wonderful functions of theater is its ability to provide reflection; to hold a mirror up to the world around us, enabling us to see ourselves more clearly.  Theater allows us to view our problems through the lens of fiction.  It allows us laugh at ourselves.  To cry.  To feel.  It opens us up to the experiences of others in a way that can make us more understanding and tolerant.  Theater makes us more human.

So what does this have to do with an R-rated production with full-puppet nudity?

Avenue Q is a coming-of-age parable, satirizing the issues and anxieties associated with entering adulthood. Its characters struggle with the schism between the world of Sesame Street and the world in which they now, as adults, must live.  Big Bird told them that they were “special” but they have discovered they are no more “special” than anyone else. This world in which they now find themselves is a far cry from the world they grew up watching on television; that world had simplistic problems and happy resolutions.  This world?  Not so much. 

So perhaps Avenue Q is about kids growing up with the concept of tikkun olam and then trying to find ways to live that philosophy in a world that makes it remarkably difficult to do so. 

You can do anything.  You can be anything.  You can change the world.  But can you?  Can you really?

In “Money Song” the cast trades riffs back and forth about how good it feels to help others.  The song culminates in with the lyric, “Give us your money! / Every time you do good deeds / You're also serving your own needs. / When you help others / You can't help helping yourself.” 
Seems cynical, right?   But real.  All too real.  And with a good outcome.  Even if the intent of helping others is to make yourself feel better, you still helped.  And by helping, even in your small, self-centered way, you have made the world a slightly a better place.  Sounds kind of like one of the most often quoted portions of Pirkei Avot; “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).” 
Avenue Q is full of cynical optimism.  Life sucks, but everything is temporary -- the good and the bad. It’s funny and raunchy but also poignant and full of life lessons. 
But in a way, Avenue Q also represents the distance between the heady concept tikkun olam and Pirkei Avot 2:21.   You are supposed to fix it. You can’t fix it.  You still have to try. 
To quote a character in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, “An awful place, this sea, this gulf between the Intention and the Act, that people call ‘the world.’”  Avenue Q provides a possible blueprint--a racy, profanity-laden, hysterically funny and extremely uncomfortable blueprint, but a blueprint nonetheless--for navigating the gulf.

Krista Lang Blackwood, Director of Cultural Arts

26 August 2011

Book Review Whales on Stilts

Whales on Stilts (M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales)Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up for my kid at the library, flipped through it real quick to scan for possible emotional potholes and decided that it was so ironic and tongue-in-cheek that it would be fine.

And it was.  My son laughed and laughed and laughed.  Then I read it and laughed and laughed and laughed.  MT Anderson is funny.  And funny in a way that appeals to a seven year old and his jaded mother.  Both.

This is not one of those books that tries too hard to be clever.  This is one of those books that just simply IS clever.  The very embodiment of it.  Ostensibly a spoof of the children's literature of the 50s and 60s it is also an homage;  an homage to Nancy Drew and Tom Swift and the pulp, series children's books of that era.  There is the promotion of Gargletine, Jasper Dash's drink of choice and fake ads for books starring Jasper Dash (the Tom Swift character who says things like "Great Scott!  Will these cads never ceases mocking my jumpsuit?") and Katie Mulligan (kind of cross between Nancy Drew and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).   One of the fake ads features an asterisk next to the declaration "AVAILABLE AT FINE STORES NEAR YOU!"  The accompanying footnote, which occupies the bottom of seven pages, starts thusly;  "No longer available on the shelves at fine stores near you.  Available now exclusively and by special arrangement on the shelves of old vacation rental cottages, where you can often find Jasper Dash books in the living room, as well as old National Geographics, Chinese checkers, half colored-in Herbie the Love Bug activity books from 1978, used up Mad Libs, and dog-eared, boring novels for adults by Leon Uris, Colleen McCullough, and James Michener, I mean big, thick books with names like Space and Novel, you know what I mean ... all the books are dry and yellow from the sun, and all of them have wrinkly pages from the salt water, and when you flip through them, sand falls out as if it was index cards marking the place of former summers..."

The dialogue runs from clever to even more clever and nothing is sacred.

"The whale fired his laser-beam eyes.  The girls felt the jolt as the laser beam bounced off the mirror.  Of course the girls didn't feel the jolt as the laser bounced off the mirror, because lasers are just light.  This story is highly scientific, and I would never mislead you.  I want to depict whale eye-laser technology as accurately as possible.  Instantaneously the laser doubled back on itself, a continuous stream of light-using all the standard oculo-incendiary prohulsifiers and megegolisms that you'd expect ..."

And the "Guide for Reading and Thinking" was a nice touch.

Anderson continued Whales on Stilts into a series called Pals in Peril.  I've not yet read the follow-up books but if they are only 50 percent as clever and enjoyable as this one, they will be worth your time.

Highly recommend.

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Book Review The Sign of the Beaver

The Sign of the BeaverThe Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Speare was the it-thing in children's literature in the late 50s; between 1957 and 1961 she published three books, two of which won the Newbery.  Then she took 20 years off.

The Sign of the Beaver was her return, in 1983, and it, too, won awards (a Newbery Honor citation, the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and the Christopher Award).  But I didn't want to read it because I never liked her other books when I was a kid.

This one I liked, though, which makes me wonder if I would, now, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond  Guess there's only one way to find out.

A well-told story with economical prose and likable characters; a boy left alone in the barely settled wilderness in the 1760s while the father goes back east to retrieve the rest of the family.  The boy's gun is stolen by an itinerant traveler but he survives with the help of a boy from a local tribe, who grudgingly teaches him the ways of the natives while the boy tries to teach him to read.  One of those stories that, as a mother, makes me shiver and shake my head but, as a child-at-heart makes me want to develop the same pluck and bravery I see in the characters.

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Book Review The Accidental Hero

The Accidental HeroThe Accidental Hero by Matt Myklusch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this for my kid while we were on a road trip;  we stopped in Oxford, MS and while my husband tromped in the footsteps of Faulkner, my kid and I spent a couple of hours at Square Books.  This book was recommended by the staff there as something a kid who loves Harry Potter and Percy Jackson would enjoy.

So I bought it and handed it to Cameron; one of the first books I've given him without a pre-read.  I guess I was tired.

He read it before we pulled into Nashville that afternoon and pronounced it excellent.  When I finally read it, I agreed with his assessment but with caveats.  The story and ideas are, indeed, excellent; clever turns on phrases and ideas about alternate realities that made my adult brain nod with recognition.  The writing is more sketchy than I had hoped;  and not sketchy in a "questionable" context but sketchy in a "outline and not much detail" context.  I have had these problems with other children's books;  I often decide that kids fill in left-out details better than I do.  In this one, though, I wished Myklusch had fleshed out his fantastic ideas a great deal more.  What is a good book could have been a great book.

Regardless, my kid thinks it's brilliant.  And that's what really matters, right?

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Book Review Vicksburg 1863

Vicksburg, 1863Vicksburg, 1863 by Winston Groom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My family and I took a road trip that included many of the battlefields of Grant's move south in 1862 and 1863, culminating in the siege of Vicksburg;  the south finally capitulated on July 4, 1863.

My husband was reading Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton.  I read this, which may be titled inaccurately because it covered the same ground as Catton's book, though perhaps with different levels of detail.

I've read other reviews trashing Groom for his academic scholarship and, being a Western Theater neophyte, I cannot say how accurate or inaccurate Groom's reporting may be.  But I will assume basic accuracy and recommend this account as utterly readable and filled with interesting tidbits about the people, the places and the oddities (did you know that when Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War he charged Admiral David Porter to go to the middle east and bring back camels to serve as beasts of burden in the newly acquired American southwest territories?  The Civil War and the railroads served to disband the Camel Corps and many of the animals were set free to go feral;  the last descendant was sighted in the 1930s)

A good overview of the succession of victories that should have ended the war.  A good taste of what life was like and why they fought.  A fair tracing of how the reasons for fighting morphed as the war went on.  Many instances of southern gentleman voting against secession and then taking up arms anyway, bound by duty and loyalty to state.  Hints at what the outside world was thinking about what they saw as the incendiary end of the democratic experiment.  The idea that the siege of Vicksburg and its aftermath (a defeated enemy who stubbornly continued to fight even when prospects were more than bleak) foreshadowed the trench warfare and needless battles and deaths prevalent in WWI.  The navy on the rivers with their ironclads, the reason the Union could defeat the south at Vicksburg.   And good trivial tidbits;  LSU used to be a military school run by Sherman, who left when the Louisiana governor sacked a fort and sent him stolen arms for safe-keeping.

And a thoughtful quote or two;  "Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad."  Euripides

And a closing great anecdote;

"A friend liked to tell the story of the time years ago when as a small boy he was walking over the battlefield with his great-aunts and his grandmother, whose father had fought at Vicksburg during the war.  Standing at the edge of the magnificent cemetery with its white marble tombstones stretching far as the eye could see, he asked one of the women, 'But why did they do it, Bamaw?  Why did they die?'  to which the old lady replied wearily, 'Oh, I don't know, son.  I suppose they'd all be dead by now anyhow.'"

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16 July 2011

Book Review Have Spacesuit Will Travel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Read it in a day;  wondered aloud how the world has changed that a book like this could have been published in a magazine for boys.  I mean, there was math, for cripes sake!  And physics!  And mechanical engineering!  And no gratuitous violence!

There was violence, yes, but Heinlein seems to think math is more exciting than gore;  indeed, his palpable excitement concerning all things mathematical was almost contagious.  Almost.  His in-depth descriptions of mechanical properties were engaging, if only to make me wish I understood crap like that.  I also wished I had built a radio at some point in my development.  And then I wondered why I hadn't built a radio.  And then I wondered if my kid would ever build a radio.

Very 1950s but maybe that's what made it engaging.  Words like "swell" cuddled up with formulas and mechanical concepts of spacesuit design.   A very antiquated concept of gender roles in one instance (there is an alien "Mother-Thing" who has that reassuring presence of a good mother, as well as "father- things" who don't spend much time with you and don't say much but leave you feeling like you need to prove something to them and succeed so that he will proud) cuddled up with a brilliant female heroine and the idea that the "Mother-Thing" wasn't necessarily female.

A book that put you firmly in a place, late 1950s America, and then took you firmly to a place that was "other" but still viewed through the lens of 1950s America.  I kept finding myself thinking of that scene in Back to the Future where Marty visits George dressed in a haz-mat suit and scares the bejeesus out of him using a Walkman and Van Halen.

The most lasting impression of the book is to marvel at the great intelligence of those human beings who have created space flight and who wrestle with formulas with Xs and zeds and lots of zeros. For fun.  And then to imagine that they know nothing in the grand scheme of things.  And if they know nothing, what the hell do I know?  Whoa.

15 July 2011

Book Review The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30)The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Terry Pratchett.  I loved it for the first half;  the clever language, the fresh way of looking at things. But then the main character fell into the proverbial rabbit hole and it all got too Narnia-Wrinkle-in-Time hallucinatory.   It would have been fine to dip into the LSD but Pratchett stayed there too long for my tastes;  it kept going. And going.  And is it still going?  What? That's not the denouement of the winter-queen-dream-world?  Crap.

He won me back in the last few chapters, though.  And now I'm wondering if all of his books are more like the first third of this one or like the second third;  here's hoping the it's the first.

My kid will probably love it;  someday.   But he needs to develop a little more intellectual focus first.  And that's saying something.

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14 July 2011

Book Review The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square

The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times SquareThe Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square by James Traub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What is it with folks who write for the New Yorker publishing books that claim to be stand-alone works but are, in actuality, simply a collection of the articles they've written for the New Yorker, expanded and stitched together with rough yarn?

All of that said, I enjoyed the read immensely, regardless of the patchwork feel of the thing.  Traub does a nice job of presenting the history of Times Square (if a little spotty on some of the details of certain, "uninteresting" eras)

One feels nostalgic for the bygone era before television killed the urban gathering place.  A gathering like the two million who congregated in Times Square on August 14, 1945 would now likely take place on Fox News, CNN and Facebook.  And one feels the loss of that sense of community.

One also realizes that "Broadway" is a relatively modern invention.  And that it has never been about quality;  profit.  Always profit.  Traub writes, "It seems a strange irony that the quality of theatrical writing improved markedly as the cultural power of theater declined;  but perhaps it's no irony at all.  As Broadway lost its status as the proving ground for national culture, where plays were hatched to be distributed to the hustings, theater became an increasingly local medium, needing to please only a local, and of course, a sophisticated audience.  Movies took on the burden of suiting the lowest common denominator."

I disagreed with Traub's placement of the early musicals (ie Oklahoma) as literary schlock designed to peddle songs;  there is very little similarity to the kind of musicals that started with Oklahoma and the musical revues of decades prior, a mistake that shows Traub is thinking more as an urban historian than a music historian.

And Traub is of a mind that Times Square is now inauthentic because crime and vice are under control;  somehow, to Traub, a place is not real unless there are drug deals, arrests and porn.  "...vagrants and hustlers and prostitutes could not be tolerated, or accepted as the price of "authentic" urban life, if the streets were to be made welcoming to "respectable" folk ... [but] how could you eradicate whatever was pathological about 42nd Street and its environs without, at the same time, eliminating everything that made it worth caring about in the first place?"

I'm not a New Yorker, so I can't claim that I understand exactly where Traub is coming from and, intellectually, I see his point, but the idea that making a place safe kills its soul seems incongruous.  Perhaps cleaning it up creates a different soul.  But clean, safe and entertaining does not necessarily make a place soulless.  Except when it does.  Hmmm.

I also found highly amusing the genesis of the idea that Times Square meant lots of lights and signs;  there was a time when urban planning and zoning decried the signs as pure trash but now you cannot build in Times Square without including signs;  the rules are very strict.  The Great White Way must remain; though it is less white now, in many ways.

The main point of the second half of the book seems to be the development of our idea of populism and how it has changed over the years.  Sadly, populism is now corporate culture.  "Our idea of populism was whatever it is people would choose for entertainment in their spare time;  it required that we be non-judgemental," said Rebecca Robertson, a public official tasked with revitalizing Times Square in the 198os.  Traub goes on to comment, with obvious distaste, "Once you choose to be nonjudgmental in matters of taste, you will eventually find common ground with the equally nonjudgemental purveyors of mass culture."

So redevelopment planners are at a disadvantage;  "The 42nd Street Development Project was designed to make the block attractive to private developers, who would lease most of the space on the street.  Public officials would establish design guidelines, but the marketplace would decide who would occupy the space.  And the marketplace was going to supply the lowest common denominator."  So we get Applebee's and Toys R Us instead of "authentic" businesses.   Architect Kevin Kennon says, "The big problem that architects have faced is how to energize a public space.  So much of what used to be public activity has now been superceded by television, the Internet, videoconferencing.  You're trying to say that a life exists in the public realm that's not virtual;  but because that virtual part of us is so ingrained in us, we have to work with it in order to reengage the real world."  Traub goes on to elaborate; "So the task, in other words, was to revitalize that old sense of Times Square as an agora, a happy urban welter, even as entities like Morgan Stanley were turning Times Square into the central switchboard of the global information network - to harness the abstract, bit-stream world in the service of the face-to-face world that it seemed bent on eradicating."

People call this kind of development process "Disney-fying" a place but there's great irony in that Disney's true involvement in Times Square redevelopment is one of the most "authentic;"  Disney re-created the "archaic splendors of the New Amsterdam Theatre and has used it to present The Lion King, an exercise in avant-garde puppetry that has confounded the company's critics with its insistent modernity and its unmistakable stamp of individual authorship."  Yet Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, says, "Personally, as a guy who supports the arts, works in the arts, spent my life doing it, for me personally to produce a play is very interesting, but when I think of what I need to do for the company, it makes sense to do things with a great return."  Disney and Clear Channel (responsible for most of the Broadway tours) "face issues of scale that necessarily change their calculations;  investments are not worth making if they can yield only a modest profit.  And the imperative of mass appeal sharply limits one's options, in theater as in every other art form ... neither Clear Channel nor Disney is likely to nudge theatergoers every far from their comfort zone, because there's simply not enough money in discomfort."

So art and profit will never meet.  And the entertainment that will survive will be the one that stuffs the most money into people's pockets.  And places like Times Square will always reflect that relationship between art, entertainment and profit.  For better.  Or for worse.

And one can't help but wonder how our current ideas of populism will fare;  perhaps someday, when populism is so virtual that there is no sense of carbon-based community,  we'll feel nostalgia for the big touring musicals and Applebees because at least, back in the day, people got out of their houses and saw each other in the flesh once in a while.  And then some urban planner will be tasked with recreating the suburban shopping mall as the great gathering place.  And it will be decried as inauthentic because you just can't bring back Claire's and Target without making them a parody of themselves.


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13 July 2011

Book Review The History of White People

The History of White PeopleThe History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When my kid was three, he came home from preschool and rattled on prosaically about a new friend who had just started school.  Then he got poetic; his new friend wore a red shirt, had curly hair and his skin was colored with a different crayon.

That's all race is to my kid; a matter of pigment.

Nell Irvin Painter's book, boldly and sensationally entitled A History of White People makes this same point but with many (many) more words and a lot of history backing it up.  Her main point seems to be "What we can see depends on what our culture has trained us to look for."  Hence race.

Slaves weren't always black, of course.  Even the word "slave" comes from "slav" because after the plague wiped out most of Europe, those kind and generous Christian Crusaders (an oxymoron for the ages) enslaved unfortunates in the Balkans.  The pilgrims, hailed as lovers of freedom, brought indentured servants with them;  all white.  The first US census didn't have a category for unfree white persons, though there were many.  But the simple fact that "free" needed to be a qualifier for the other categories (free white males, free white females) alludes to the nonfree status of many whites who were still in servitude.  Tracking the categories of each census probably makes for an interesting study (though Painter didn't not go into detail) about the genesis of race ideals in the United States.  Then we eventually get to the idea that one is not white if one's blood is tainted.  By the time Toqueville wrote Democracy in America this flight of odd fancy was fully developed;  Toqueville's traveling partner, Beaumont, also wrote a book that pointed out some of the hypocrisy of enslaved peoples in a country where all men are created equals;  "white Americans belong to a hereditary aristocracy by dint of a mythology driven by the notion of tainted blood and a belief in invisible ancestry."

Tracing the prejudice against immigrants is enlightening, too;  our bad guys keep changing. Those nasty hispanics were considered "white" for many years while the American people were harping on about the Irish Catholic dregs muddying up the pool.   Now Irish Catholics are perpetrating violence against hispanic immigrants.  Interesting.

Then there's the idea of racial purity;  in the 1850s, French aristocrat Gobineau wrote an essay about race that spoke warmly of racial mixing.  "...Gobineau says quite clearly that Africans contribute positively to the mixture of races in prosperous metropolitan centers by offering Dionysian gifts such as passion, dance, music, rhythm, lightheartedness, and sensuality.  Whites, for their part, contribute energy, action, perseverance, rationality, and technical aptitude."  While Gobineau obviously sees whites as superior, they still need the contributions of other races to best develop civilization.  Of course, Josiah Nott, who translated Gobineau's writings for distribution in English was denounced by Gobineau, as Nott took much of the positive language about nonwhite races out of the work.

Then there's anti-Semitism.  And head measurements.  And attempts to classify physical characteristics of each race.  A whole rigamarole.  Teddy Roosevelt freely spoke of "race suicide" and worried aloud about the declining birthrate among old-stock New Englanders. "If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, Newport, and Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia, have one child, or no child at all, while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or ten - it's simply a question of the multiplication table.  How are you going to get away from it?"

But by the 1920s, race hysteria has become the sign of the weak-minded hypocrite;  Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby goes on quite a tear about whites being the dominant race, based on writings that were considered gospel just a few years before.  His tirade is met with winking flapper disdain;  he is "nothing but a boor whose Nordic chauvinism signals his boorishness."  And Irish Catholics were white and not a danger (using their intelligence to rock the system by actually voting and filling the government with people to lobby for their eventual inclusion as true Americans).

By the 1940s, the watchword was "cultural pluralism."  Henry Ford and his melting pot ran parallel to this, the idea that "ethnic types" would become Anglo-Saxons by giving up talismans of their culture and identity like language, clothing and food.  He even had a program at his engineered-society-car-manufacturing-plant where the ethnics would wear their native clothing and walk up stairs towards a huge paper-mache melting pot.  They would come out the other side in American clothing, waving American flags.  Reeducation at its finest. 

Notice Asians aren't even in the picture yet?  Yeah.  They were worse than blacks.  Until the 1960s;  now they are considered smarter and richer than native-born American whites.

And that's not even scratching the surface of what Painter is trying to convey.  Her subject is a big one and impossible to encapsulate in 400 pages.  Her lines of reasoning could also use a clearer sense of beginning, middle and end.  She structures her book chronologically and because she tried to cover so much information, points were potentially lost.  For example, she introduced Gobineau and Nott and then left them.  By the time she returned to Gobineau (to make the point that it was he that developed the word "Aryan" and it was another, more faithful translation that inspired the Nazis to adopt the term) you had forgotten who Gobineau was ... a chapter on Gobineau and how he was interpreted through time would have been more helpful.

And perhaps the whole book might have been structured that way; a chapter on the genesis of Irish Catholics.  A chapter on Jews in America.  Etc.

But, overall, a thoughtful book worth reading.

Or you could just read the following sentences and get the gist;  "Incessant human migration has made us all multiracial.  Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior."

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02 July 2011

Book Review New York

New York: The NovelNew York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read Danielle Steele's The Ring when I was 11 or 12 and, since then, I've been a sucker for books that follow a neutral item through history.  I walked around my house for weeks afterward, looking at things that I knew belonged to my parents, wondering where they really came from  and what stories they could tell.  It's a fascinating way to learn history and it is telling that I still love that book, though I despise romance novels. And Danielle Steele.  

Therefore, knowing my love for The Ring I should love Edward Rutherfurd, right?  He has made a career doing what Danielle Steele does in The Ring but without most of the romantic schlock and with a larger focus;  not a ring but a whole forest, or a whole city.

But New York left me a bit cold.  Rutherfurd seems to have called this one in, with lazy story-telling, sketchy details and a choice to focus almost entirely on one family, bringing in supporting characters that eventually disappear.  I wanted to know where Hudson's descendants were in 2001.  And Pale Feather's.  But I didn't get that and the book is less rich because of Rutherfurd's choice to make it mostly Anglo-centric. 

Rutherfurd does follow a wampum belt around and it figures in the final moments but it disappears for much of the story and doesn't really provide the kind of thread that makes books like these extremely fun to read.

Rutherfurd does have moments of social-commentary clarity;  when he describes wampum inflation, he gets to the heart of the difference between white man and native;  to the native, wampum is worth something because of its inherent beauty and the concept that suddenly one would need MORE of that inherent beauty to buy the same thing that less of that inherent beauty bought last week ... well, that's just cheating.  And in New York of the 60s, a bittersweet poke at old money's propensity for setting verbal traps for folks not in the know;  "It's not Peabody, dear.  It's pronounced Pee-bdy."  And near the end, when you know Ruthurfurd is building up to 9/11, a lady at a dinner party goes on this gentle diatribe;

"I was reading Virginia Woolf the other day, and she remarked that at one period of her life, she was able to get so much done because she had three uninterrupted hours to work in every day.  And I thought, what on earth is she talking about?  Only three hours a day?  And then I looked around the office at all the people working their fourteen-hour days, and I thought, how many of you actually spend three hours in real, creative, intellectual activity in a day?  And I reckoned, probably not one.  And there's Virginia Woolf achieving more than they ever will in their lives, on three hours a day.  It makes you think.  They might do better if they worked less."

Cue the towers falling and everyone re-evaluating their rat-race lives.

Cheesy, but certainly one of the most effective parts of the book.

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26 June 2011

Book Review The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare: The First Modern Edition of His Lost Play, with an Introduction and Notes by Arthur PhillipsThe Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare: The First Modern Edition of His Lost Play, with an Introduction and Notes by Arthur Phillips by Arthur Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hmmmm.  An author named Arthur writes a book narrated by an author named Arthur who has two sons, as does the author named Arthur.  The narrator Arthur the author names the books he has published, which are the same as the author Arthur.  So when the narrator Arthur writes about his twin sister, his convict-forger father and his dissolving marriage one wonders if author Arthur has a twin sister, convict-forger father and a dissolving marriage.

So one spends a lot of time wondering how meta this book really is and marveling at the conceit of the book; an author named Arthur writes a book about an author named Arthur whose father, Arthur may or may not have forged a "found" Shakespeare play about, you guessed it, King Arthur.

The bulk of the book is an "introduction" to the first publication of this found play.  What it is is a memoir (though narrator Arthur spends much energy making fun of the memoir genre, even while gleefully buying into the concept)  Following the introduction is the "new" "Shakespeare" play.

I must confess by the time I got to the play, I was worn out.  And though I tried to read it, just to see how many inside jokes and meta references and ironic twists and mentions might be in it, I soon gave up and acquitted myself to a surface skim.

But one really doesn't need the play at all; one is sated by the introduction (though near the end, I found myself gasping in exasperation at the plot stretches and the actions of people who had seemed mostly like people until they were required to do and say things just to fit into plot).  Arthur Phillips is a clever chap;  his Anti-Stratfordian theory, though entirely tongue-in-cheek and presented as an idea his twin came up with, and developed over many years, just to anger their convict-forger father, could be propped up to actually hold water (save for a couple of details) in academic circles.  His ponderings, though narrator author, Arthur, about what makes Shakespeare great or, rather, why we have all spent endless energy throughout western civilization creating the myth that Shakespeare was great, even though he wasn't, is thoughtful and rather brilliant.  "(A) We judge him the best.  Or (B) He has survived all this time.  But really, what if it's the other way around?  Is he who we've got because he's good, or do we judge him good because he's who we've got?"

And Phillips writes so well;  at one point, a young, female public defender is trying to talk some sense into Arthur Phillips senior, the convict forger;  "Well, okay, so we've come to the plea phase?  And it's like they're saying, 'So what do you say for yourself, mister?'  I know, I mean, obviously, I know that you know all this, but just to square our T's.  Now, I don't want you to say anything to me yet.  Let's just lay out what they're all lining up against you?  Their side of the story?  And then we can see what sort of answer is the best one for us?  To make?"  One needs no further description to see and hear this young lawyer with utter clarity.

Describing an assignation with a stranger; "... I put the thought out of my mind that she and I were already off on disparate adventures with diverging lessons and retroactive importance, only sex and scenery in common."

Describing his dissolving marriage; "The next morning, on my way out of the apartment to the airport, my wife and I had one of those fights that are entirely unnecessary, in which everyone is simply reciting lines scripted by their worst impulses, a dull sequel to old fights, a dull prologue to later fights, a DVD frozen on the same stupid mid-blink face of a normally good-looking actor."

A very enjoyable read with enough fluff to make it light and enough depth to make it dark;  chiaroscuro, though one can read it just from the chiaro perspective.  Or just the scuro.

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13 June 2011

Book Review Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Sum: Forty Tales from the AfterlivesSum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David M. Eagleman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'll stop short of calling this brilliant but perhaps I shouldn't.  In the forty tales, I only shook my head at the idea Eagleman was stretching once or twice and that's perhaps the highest praise I can give to a book that exists solely as an imaginative, philosophical stretch.

I hear tell, though, some of the stories have been done before, a blatant rip-off of Neil Gaiman here, a Benjamin Button-like tale there, but to decry Eagleman's original and inspiring work as derivative and insipid would be going too far.   I'll deem it "origative," perhaps.  Certainly it was a book that made me think, reflect, smile, frown and cock my head to the side in a contemplative fog more than once.  Sum is full of touching moments and more tangential insights than should be legal in such a minimalist work.

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07 June 2011

Book Review The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras SpringsThe Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice little collection of vignettes designed to encourage us to open our eyes to the world around us and be tourists in our own town.  And also to be better folks.   Magical realism for the elementary set.

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30 May 2011

Book Review Gregor the Overlander Series

Gregor the Overlander Box Set (Underland Chronicles, #1-5)Gregor the Overlander Box Set by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Collins, who is now more famous as the creator of the dystopian-future-riffic Hunger Games trilogy, started out on her authorial path with this five book series.  Inspired by her imagining what a big-city kid would find if he fell through a manhole like Alice fell through her rabbit hole into Wonderland, Collins has created an underland that has urban grit where Wonderland had bucolic oddity; a world of giant roaches, bats and rats, as well as regular sized humans with violet eyes and a violent nature.

The series is a well-constructed page turner with wonderful lessons on the futility of war, though one has to get through a lot of blood, gore and battle to learn the lessons.  Like most series of this nature, the tint gets darker as the plot progresses;  Gregor starts out as an innocent 11 year old boy but by the last book, though he is only 12, his world has been tainted by experiences and lessons that would scar any fallen adult.  There are many deaths, an Underland holocaust complete with allusions to gas chambers, and creatures who only know how to solve problems by killing other creatures. 

Yet, in the end, the reader is told that war is not the answer.  Even though it was for Gregor and the Underland.

A dichotomy.  Like life.

Pre-reading for my 7 year old;  I won't let him touch them until he's at least 10.

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25 May 2011

Book Review Cranford

CranfordCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up because I watched the BBC miniseries entitled "Cranford" recently and thought the production quite entertaining.

The book was lovely (though fans of the miniseries should know that the script writers took material from several other of Gaskell's books to round out the story of the miniseries;  the book, Cranford is much more limited in scope and plot).  I cannot decide whether I would have liked it without having seen the very well-acted and charming series, with Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and other lights of the British screen.

But, then again, perhaps I would have liked it if I had come to it without the BBC.  The book itself is charming.  The world Gaskell describes is rather foreign but one finds foothold quite quickly.  These are ultimately human characters, even if their spinster world of elegant economy and living on a yearly stipend is rather an unknown quality these days.

There is insight, too.  Gaskell writes, "I never knew what sad work the reading of old letters was before that evening, though I could hardly tell why.  The letters were as happy as letters could be - there was in them a vivid and intense sense of the present time, which seemed so strong and full, as if it could never pass away, and as if the warm, living hearts that so expressed themselves could never die, and be as nothing to the sunny earth."

And humor.  Lots of humor.  Take Miss Pole, for example, the town busy-body and gossip.  A conjuror comes to town and Miss Pole, determined to prepare scientific explanations for what she is about to see, sits down with an Encylopedia.  " Ah!  I see;  I comprehend perfectly.  A represents the ball.  Put A between B and D - no!  between C and F, and turn the second joint of the third finger of your left hand over the wrist of your right H.  Very clear indeed!  My dear Mrs Forester, conjuring and witchcraft is a mere affair of the alphabet!"

All in all, a lovely read.  Highly recommended.

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Book Review Guys Read: Funny Business

Guys Read: Funny BusinessGuys Read: Funny Business by Jon Scieszka
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Eh.  Perhaps I didn't find this funny because I'm not a guy.

I did like the Adam Rex story, "Will."  I simply adored "Your Questions for Author Here" by Kate DiCamillo and Jon Scieszka.  But other than that, I was rather unmoved and, often, rather offended, particularly by the first story, which was about manipulating people and using people.  Not funny.

But I might buy the book someday for my kid, if only to get my hands on the two stories mentioned above, which rate much higher than the two stars I'm giving the whole thing.

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03 May 2011


I'm a bit late to the party wherein we all celebrate the death of bin Laden.  Or decry the celebration of the death of bin Laden.  Or party-poop the death of bin Laden by saying his erradication will mean nothing in the long run.  Or warn of the martyrdom of bin Laden.  Or refuse to give Obama credit.  Or refuse to give Bush credit.  Or any of the other veritable myriad of ideas floating around the internet in the wake of bin Laden's death.  What I haven't seen reflected in the multitudinous blogs, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, though, is the idea that bin Laden is merely a symptom.  Not a cause.

It's 1979.  The main enemy of the United States is the Soviet Union so the United States funds the Afghan Mujahideen as they fight against the Soviets.   But when it is obvious that the Afghan insurgents are destined to lose, the U.S. stops all funding, putting the the Afghan rebels in a much weaker position and, ultimately, causing its demise.

We can argue and pontificate whether bin Laden was a direct recipient of these funds or whether he received any specialized training from CIA operatives.  I have no idea.  And there are people who insist that the US never funded the Afghan rebels at all.   Again, I have no real way of proving or disproving any of these stories.

But let's, for a moment, presume that the story is true;  that the U.S. threw money at a group of unpredictable rebels in hopes that they would do the dirty work of ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan.  Then when those unpredictable rebels were found wanting, the U.S. gave up on them and vanished.

If this did happen, it is nothing short of reprehensible.  The philosophy behind funding insurgents to fight as soldiers-for-hire in some sort of undeclared war for world domination is inherently problematic, of course, but to fund them and then abandon them mid-fight is downright horrid.

Again, I'm not claiming this as truth.  But if it is true (and it likely is) that makes Bin Laden a symptom;  a symptom of the failed diplomacy and failed political maneuvering of the government of the United States.  A symptom of America's inability to sell its democracy to troubled areas without holding hands with people who run almost entirely counter to democratic ideals.  A symptom of the Machiavellian "the end justifies the means" philosophy.  A symptom of sacrificing pawns in a larger game of chess where the pawns, ultimately, don't matter.

And sometimes the pawns get pissed.  And sometimes the pawns gain power.  And then what?

If I were a more astute historian, I would  outline all of the regimes and dictators that the United States has supported solely for the purpose of jettisoning a marginally worse regime or dictator.  Then I would dissect the benefits derived from, as well as the problems created by, these associations and partnerships.

I am not, however, an astute historian.  Regardless, here's a list, off the top of my head;
Ngo Dinh Diem (Vietnam), Chiang Kai-Shek (China), Idi Amin (Uganda), Franco (Spain), Pinochet (Chile), Sadam Hussein (Iran), Muammar al-Qaddafi (Libya), Noriega (Phillipines), Mubarek (Egypt), the Contras (Nicaraugua).

Hmmm.  So you join forces with the playground bully because you want to win at dodge ball during recess.   But then, when you go inside and sit back down at your desk, the bully starts to make the kind of trouble that is not acceptable within the mores of the civilized classroom. What do you do?  Stand up for him because he helped you win dodge ball?  Or abandon him because you're playing a different game and he's not helping now?  And if you abandon him, will he find you after school and beat the crap out of you?

Tough one.  I guess it all depends on how much that one game of dodge ball means to you.

None of this to defend bin Laden.  Nor will I pretend that I know the intricate details of why the United States seem to continually get in bed with people who aren't good for it in the long run.  But America does seem to have a habit of throwing in its lot with spurious characters and then not knowing what to do with these spurious characters when they have served their short-term purpose.  And sometimes those spurious characters get angry and retaliate, leaving us with a Laurel and Hardy "this is a fine mess" moment.  Or we're left with something much, much worse.

So maybe we ought not get in bed with spurious characters in the first place?

Oversimplifying, certainly.  But still food for thought.

28 April 2011

Book Review: Attachments

AttachmentsAttachments by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't read novels written for adult-type personages and never would have picked this up if not for the fact that Rainbow Rowell worked in a Nebraska newsroom eons ago with my husband;  I have been a fan of her writing, if not a regular consumer, for over 15 years.

And if that wasn't enough, the book is actually about that previously mentioned newsroom, with characters based on the people therein, including my husband.

And then add to that the fact that two of my closest friends and I have email relationships (and now chat relationships, because, you know the times ... they are a'changin') much like the two lead characters in this book.

So, on the surface, what's not to like?

(Now I've led you into what you think will ultimately be a bad review, right?   Well, except for those five glaring stars above, which kind of give it away)

I loved this book.   Maybe I loved it because Rainbow is a friend.  Maybe I loved it because the fictionalized version of my dear husband reminded me of what he was like when he had hair (though Rainbow does not mention his hair, so perhaps it is only me who recalls it fondly).  Maybe I loved it because it I knew that newsroom and I lived through the ridiculousness of the beginning of the internet age.

But mostly I think I loved it because I loved the characters Rainbow created.  I loved the conceit of only getting to see two characters through their correspondence with each other.  I loved the amount of good-natured funny in the dialog and description.

And there's a lot of good-natured funny; I usually dog-ear things that make me laugh or think while I'm reading a book.  I didn't dog-ear because, well, Rainbow signed it, and then defaced it, replacing the name of the printed character based on my husband with my husband's name, so I figure that our son will be able to take it to the Antiques Roadshow someday.  Also, and this is probably the more-so reason, I would have had to dog-ear almost every page.

I'm just going to open up the book at random and give a sampling;

"I'm starting to think you have a problem.  With school."

"I've never had a problem with school," he said, knowing how lame that sounded, knowing that refusing to take part in the conversation wasn't the same as avoiding it.

"You know what I mean," she said.  She wagged a dirty spoon at him.  "A problem.  Like those women who get addicted to plastic surgery.  They keep going back and going back, trying to look better until there is no more better.  Like they can't look better because they don't even look like themselves anymore.  And then it's just about looking different, I think.  I saw this woman in a magazine who looked like a cat.  Like a cat of prey, a big cat.  Have you ever seen her?  She has a lot of money.  I think she might be from Austria."

"No," he said.

"Well, she looks very unhappy."

I can pretty much guarantee that whatever page you turn to, you can find something worthy of quoting out of context for a laugh.

Of course, funny quotes out of context does not a book make. And, honestly, that was my concern when I started reading;  that this book would simply be a collection of clever-and-funny, with a story that was only constructed incidentally and slap-dashedly to shore up the clever-and-funny;  clever-and-funny for the sake of clever-and-funny.

Imagine my gratification when I found myself caring about the characters.  When I found myself rooting for them.  When my heart would beat faster because I knew their hearts were beating faster.   When, though I knew how it must end, I was still unable to put the book down until it did end.

So what's not to like?  Even if you don't know Rainbow or the newsroom in Nebraska, you will love this book, the world she created, the words her characters say and type and the relationships they build.  You'll wish it were you.  Then you'll email your best friend and tell her you love her.

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27 April 2011

Book Review: Thames

The Thames: Sacred RiverThe Thames: Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ugh.  Less a history than a listing.  No footnotes.  No bibliography.  No depth.  If I knew the details of the history of England as it relates to the Thames, maybe I would have loved this book for putting it all in one place.  As it stands, I read it because I wanted to know more about the history and got merely a listing of interesting facts that that I found less than interesting because most of the time I did not have the requisite backstory to put these facts in the correct context.

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16 April 2011

Book Review: The African Queen

The African QueenThe African Queen by C.S. Forester
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I worried for the first 20 or so pages that I would not be able to get Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart out of my head;  but then it was easy to get them out of my head because Forester's characters are very different from Huston's characters.

This was my first foray into Forester but I enjoyed it;  his characterization of Rose doesn't take any of the expected spinster turns, and for that, I was grateful.

It is easy to lose the thread of the larger plot here;  Germans occupying Africa, a portion of the world to which Britain felt entitled.  The historical context of World War One is not terribly clear, either (though about halfway through, the date 1914 is mentioned ... if it was mentioned earlier, I missed it).  Forester allows some Germans to be upstanding, which was refreshing.

A nice read.  A beach read, perhaps.  The ending of the book seemed slap-dash and uncharacteristically rushed, like Forester was on deadline or something.  This is one of the few times in the history of the universe that the movie is better than the book;   though the movie's ending is far-fetched, it is much more satisfying than the ending of the book.

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11 April 2011

Book Review: The Big Sleep

The Big SleepThe Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book uses its prose as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings, though sometimes it seems that armies of sluggish minutes drag by while you're reading.  And, sometimes, the plot fell apart like a bride's pie crust.  I found the characters more unbelievable than a four-ace poker hand and as seedy as a spring garden. Though I read this on a crisp morning, with just enough snap in the air to make life seem simple and sweet, at times my soul felt as empty as a scarecrow's pockets.   The plot is heavier than a dead man, which is heavier than a broken heart.  But the writing was worth it; a metaphoric plethora.

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12 March 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionThe Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I know I've read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I don't really remember reading it.  I remember the feel of the book in my hand and the act of reading it. It still sits on my bookshelf, an accomplishment when one regards the fact that said bookshelf has been through several major purges.  And when I look through the shelf for things to read, I see its spine and I smile.  But I don't remember anything about it except that I liked it; nothing of its style or its prose or even its plot.

So when I was wandering the library shelves in the Mystery section looking at random spines of Agatha Christie books, searching for one I'd not yet read, the name "Michael Chabon" hopped out at me like a kid playing peek-a-boo.  "Ooh!" I thought.  "I like him!"   Though if anyone asked my why I liked him, I would be at a loss.  "Um.  That comic book novel.  That was really good ..."   Brilliant.  Anyway, the cover and title of this book intrigued me, as well as the fact that it was shelved in the Mystery section of the library.  So I picked it up, along with Christie's A Carribbean Mystery.

I read Christie first.  A regular old Miss Marple tale, filled with the regular characters in a rather irregular setting (for Christie).  Entertaining, not thought-provoking.  Standard cozy mystery fare.  Then I started Chabon.

I hated it for the first, oh, thirteen chapters.  It took me a long time to find footholds in this crazy world of Chabon's imagination, based on a trivial what-if in history;  Jews without Jerusalem but with a non-permanent foothold in the wilds of Alaska.  A current world stuck in the 1940s world of noir, hats and cigarettes.  Yiddish thrown in without explanation or definition.  I was buffaloed.

But then the story took me in.  An outrageous story but fitting with its outrageous premise and its outrageous characters.

And, yes, Chabon overwrites.  Sometimes in a major way.  But I love that.  It makes me think and stop to consider.  Describing two propane tanks as a "scrotal pair" brings so much more color and texture to the idea.  And also more grit.   Lines like "The lady has been in and out of the hospital lately, dying in chapters, a cliffhanger at the end of every one" makes those little moments that make up life so much bigger.  He could have just written,  "She was dying."   But he didn't.

At an abandoned big box store;  "Its doors are chained and along its windowless flank where Yiddish and Roman characters once spelled out the name of the store, there is only a cryptic series of holes, domino pips, a braille of failure."  A whole new level and texture to something we see everyday in urban settings.  Something I'll think of from now on, I'm sure.

Then there were lines like "In a gray, wet place, Mendele gave off light and warmth.  You wanted to stand close to him.  To warm your hands, to melt the ice on your beard.  To banish the darkness for a minute or two.  But then when you left Mendele, you stayed warm, and it seemed like there was a little more light, maybe one candle's worth, in the world.  And that was when you realized the fire was inside of you all the time.  And that was the miracle.  Just that."   I had to stop reading and think.

"An awful place, this sea, this gulf between the Intention and the Act, that people call 'the world.'"  Hmmmm.  Yes.

And that is what makes a book worth reading to me.  One that makes you think.  And this book also pleasantly diverted me with not-quite believable or lovable, but still somehow believable and lovable characters, as well as an an entertaining, if over-active, plot.  Bonus.

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06 March 2011

Book Review: Seeds of America (Chains and Forge)

Chains (Seeds of America, #1)Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Laurie Halse Anderson came to our local children's bookstore and I went to hear her speak.  She was an unassuming personage, more like a gal you'd run into at the Target than a highly-acclaimed author.  But her passion for this era of our history was palpable; her inner brilliance showed in her eyes and her voice as she talked about how her whole life changed when she discovered that Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. And she wanted to write about it.  For kids.  Because kids need to know about our spotted history; to learn the story that they don't learn in school.  And, also, she hates Johnny Tremain.

The result is the Seeds of America series, a complex but age-appropriate set of young adult books that looks at the Revolutionary War through the eyes of a Loyalist’s slave (Chains), as well as a male slave conscripted into the army on his owner's behalf (Forge).

As Anderson says in her Author’s Note at the end of Chains, “you really can’t look at this through good guy/bad guy glasses" and, truly, there are no characters that are pure; all the good guys have bad instincts sometimes and some of the bad guys have good instincts.  Sometimes.

Anderson writes with aplomb and, though the books suffer a bit from plots that force characters to be in the shadow of documented history, the story is so compelling, the writing so masterful, that this reader didn't really care.

One of the blurbs on the back of Chains says it "knocks on the conscience of a nation."   Indeed.

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11 February 2011

Responsible Consumerism

This type of winter weather brings out the worst in climate change skeptics.  I firmly believe in the impact of man's habits on climate change but even I love to go out in 1 degree temperatures and yell, "Global Warming, my ass!"

I will not pretend to understand the science of the earth's warming causing blizzards.  Nor will I spend this blog post convincing you that climate change is a real and dangerous threat.

I will spend this post convincing you to make changes in the way you run your life.  But not to help the environment.  I want you to change because the way we are encouraged to purchase and consume is just plain dumb.   We are idiots.  All of us.

Case and point;  we adopted a dog a couple of months ago.  He is big and beautiful and has the kind of fur with which polar fleece loves to cuddle.  As previously mentioned, we're having a very cold winter and my daily outfit of choice is always topped off with a polar fleece jacket, which I wear inside, too, but I digress.   This warm and comfy black polar fleece jacket often looks beige because of the dog fur that is attached to it via the joy and magic of static electricity.  Again, I won't try to understand the science, but suffice it to say if my dog scratches his ear, the fur he detaches from his head immediately ends up on my jacket. Even if I'm 20 feet away.  Or in a different room.

So off I went in search of a lint brush.  I remember the lint brush we had when I was a kid;  a wooden-handled thing with some sort of red fabric on both sides.  We used it the whole time I was growing up and I would hazard a guess that my folks still use it.    You cleaned it by wiping it with your wet hand, transferring the lint from brush to hand.  Then you washed your hands.  Simple.

But it's not easy to find a lint brush these days.  The stores only stock those sticky roller things;  you roll it over your clothes, peel off a layer of sticky to reveal a new layer of sticky and then throw the old layer of sticky away.  When you are done with the roll of sticky, you throw the whole thing away;  a big plastic handle and a plastic roll.  In removing lint, you've created a pile of trash.

And you could have just used a freaking lint brush and then wiped it off with your wet hand.

I went all over town looking for a lint brush.  (Yes, one can lampoon the fact that I used fossil fuels to wander all over the metro, venturing into the vast parking lots and the glut of product that demarcate the big box store.  But let's not go there.)  In my big box spelunking I found ideas based on the old-fashioned lint brush but even these required one to change the fabric attached every month; refill packages were helpfully stocked nearby.  I found sticky rollers galore.  I found one lint brush.  One.  It was made of plastic but had the red fabric I remembered.  I picked it up to test it on my polar fleece.  The handle broke.  I grimaced and took it to customer service.  They shrugged and told me these things often broke and they weren't going to stock them anymore.  They refused my offer of pay and tossed the broken lint brush in the trash.

This lint brush was made by a company that also made the sticky rollers;  I went back to the lint roller aisle and compared the two handles;  the sticky roller, designed to be disposable, had a substantially sturdier handle.  Try as I might, I couldn't break it (I did succeed in catching the attention of the store security guard, but that is another blog post entirely).   The lint brush, ostensibly designed to be fairly permanent, was made as cheaply as possible; designed to break so we would either buy another one or throw up our hands at the uselessness of the old-fashioned lint brush and move our alliance to the disposable sticky roller.

There are so many products like the sticky roller;  the Swiffer instead of a mop.  Lunchables.  Individually packaged small yogurts.  Those tiny bottles of water.  Disinfecting wipes.  Disposable razors.  Products that create convenience.   But these convenience products also create trash.  Lots and lots of trash (yes, I know I said I wasn't going to talk about the environment, but indulge me).

Have you heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  It's a huge pile of trash, roughly the size of Texas, in the central North Pacific Ocean.  Estimates put the amount at 3.5 million tons of trash. Shoes, toys, bags, pacifiers, wrappers, and bottles too numerous to count are only part of what can be found in this accidental dump floating midway between Hawaii and San Francisco.

How many sticky-roller handles are in this pile?  How many water bottles?  How many disposable razors?

But if this picture doesn't make you gag and swear off disposable products entirely, let's talk about your money.  Disposable products ensure that you spend much more money than you would otherwise.  We used one sticky roller in two months.  That's $27 a year.  If you buy a Swiffer, you have to keep buying refills and  then you eventually have to buy a whole new Swiffer because the plastic broke and the sheets  won't stay on anymore.  You just made a mint for the Swiffer people.  And you'll keep making that mint for them as long as you buy into their product line.   Like their dusters.  You could buy an old-fashioned feather duster but wouldn't it be better to buy a package of disposable ones?  Then you can wipe the dust off of your furniture and throw it away immediately!  A clean slate every time you dust!  How wonderful!

Can you hear the "cha-ching" from the company boardroom?

See?  We're sooooo dumb.

I finally found a permanent lint brush product, by the way.  Something called a Furbegone;  a brush with soft rubber bristles that grab pet hair and lint like a magnet and then rinse clean.   It was on an aisle at a pet store, surrounded by sticky rollers.  I've used it quite a bit and it works very well.  Perhaps a little more labor-intensive than the sticky roller but more effective in the end.  It can also be used directly on your pet, as well as on carpets and upholstery.

A 100 sheet sticky roller costs $4.59.  A Furbegone costs $6.99.  The dumb consumer in us buys the sticky roller because it's less expensive.  But the rubber brush we only have to buy once.  We spend more at the outset but save over time.

So how come the rubber brush is so hard to find?

Because we're dumb.  Duh.  It's easier to find the sticky roller so we buy it.  We don't think.  We just buy.  Dumb.

I could go on and on and on and on.  But I won't because I doubt you made it this far.  I really should include entertaining illustrations in these blog posts.  

So let me close with this;  you may hate environmentalists.   You may want to shoot tree-huggers with a BB gun.  You may have Al Gore's face on your basement dart board.

But putting the brakes on disposable consumerism makes financial sense.  For you and your family.   And if the Great Pacific Garbage patch disappears too?  All the better.

17 January 2011

Book Review: The Light Thickens

Light ThickensLight Thickens by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This Marsh cozy made me want to read Macbeth.  Then read the cozy again.  If nothing else, that makes this a mystery worth reading.

Marsh's last mystery.  Brings back some characters from Killer Dolphin (Death at the Dolphin in the UK).  The murder itself doesn't happen until the final 50 or so pages.  But, as I say again and again, who the hell cares?  Excellent writing, intriguing characterization and, bonus, makes one feel more literate about that Scottish play.

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Book Review: Killer Dolphin

Killer Dolphin (A Roderick Alleyn Mystery)Killer Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are two books that feature the fictional Dolphin Theater; this is the first one.  I read them in the wrong order so some of the plot points were already old hat to me.

Not one of Marsh's strongest mysteries but still a wonderful beach read.  Or sick bed read.  Her characterizations of professional actors are always a hoot and the prim attitude of Alleyn always makes me half-smile.

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Book Review: Black As He's Painted

Black as He's PaintedBlack as He's Painted by Ngaio Marsh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My least favorite Marsh book so far.  Very dated and rather offensive to modern sensibilities.  That said, please don't rewrite it and remove all allusions to the negro race as Marsh describes them; that would be silly.  The exploration of prejudice itself is very instructive, even if the mystery wanders over into sensationalism in a very un-Marsh-like way.

As a secondary note, I read the Jove paperback, published in the 70s.  Very, very obvious what was selling then;  the back cover blurb talks about a murder that might start World War Three when there's not even a hint of something of that within the text of the book.  Marsh's name is written in a font that my son said looked "bloody and full of terror."  Marketed as a slasher novel.  Yet still a cozy;  a cozy set outside the typical confines of most books of this nature but still featuring the type of persnickety-yet-likeable main character more often found in St. Mary Meade.

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