Saturday, August 14, 2010

Table of Contents: The Spot

The Spot: StoriesAuthor: David Means
Publisher/Year: Faber & Faber, 2010
Synopsis: The Spot is an old blacksmith shed in which three men tweeze apart the intricacies of a botched bank robbery. The Spot is a park on the Hudson River, where two lovers sense their affair is about to come to an end. The Spot is at the bottom of Niagara Falls, where the body of a young girl floats as if caught in the currents of her own tragic story. The Spot is in the ear of a Manhattan madman plagued by a noisy upstairs neighbor. The Spot is a suburban hospital room in which a young father confronts his son’s potentially devastating diagnosis. The Spot is a dusty encampment in Nebraska where a gang of inept radicals plot a revolution. The Spot draws thirteen new stories together into a masterful collection that shows David Means at his finest: at once comically detached and wrenchingly affecting, expansive and concise, wildly inventive and firmly rooted in tradition.

What Others Have To Say

The New York Times
"Rather than moving in linear time, the narration pirouettes again and again around that one point. Reading his work, we feel that whatever has occurred cannot be undone or bargained away..."

The L.A. Times
"For Means, part of the intent is to map this divide between illusion and reality, between how we see ourselves and who we are."

Book Slut
"Means wills incredible dynamicism out of the characters he has forced into depressed scenarios. For however many dead-ends and deaths fill The Spot, there’s a charm and lightness in the stories -- though those aspects often emerge at tragicomic moments."

The A.V. Club
"...Means doesn’t waste a word. There isn’t enough room. His awareness of that small space necessitates a density that novelists are free to ignore. And the brilliance of these tight tales is that they’re somehow about that too—a story’s obligation to repeatedly hold up to a reader’s scrutiny."

New Yorker Interview

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Table of Contents: The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay: FictionAuthor: Beverly Jensen
Publisher/Year: Viking, 2010
Synopsis: Spanning the years 1916 to 1987, the novel offers vignettes from the lives of sisters Idella and Avis Hillock, opening with an account of their mother's death in childbirth and closing with Idella's husband, Eddie, now an old man, reminiscing about his life with Idella. The Hillock girls spent their early years in the rough landscape of New Brunswick, Canada, where grief and hard living have damaged their widowed father. Eventually, Idella escapes to New England, where she finds a husband and her own domestic troubles. Younger, more attractive sister Avis has an even harder path ahead; after attracting the ardor of her father's friends as a teen, she embarks on a series of damaging romantic entanglements.

What Others Have To Say

The New York Times
"hard-won wisdom, leavened by sometimes gentle, sometimes boisterous humor, is the core joy of Jensen’s narrative, and it’s in the collection’s final two stories that the emotional payoff is richest."

Elizabeth Strout, Author
“The story of these two sisters, Idella and Avis, travels from Canada to New England, but mostly it travels through their lives and hearts, and it will travel through your heart as well.”

The A.V. Club
"Short stories about rural folks who know more than their city-slicker cousins are a dime a dozen; Jensen understands that they work best when everyone is fumbling toward answers they’re barely able to grasp in the first place."

Reading Guide

Monday, August 9, 2010

Line By Line: Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One's Own

A Room of One's Own (Annotated)"Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man, at twice its natural size."

"Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others."

"For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately."

"Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top."

"Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in it's place?"

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Mark: Pictures from Cariwest 2010

Table of Contents: Cocaine Nation - How the White Trade Took Over the World

Cocaine Nation: How the White Trade Took Over the WorldAlso known as: The Candy Machine - How the White Trade Took Over the World

Author: Tom Feiling
Publisher/Year: Pegasus, 2010
Synopsis: Cocaine is big business and getting bigger. Governments spend millions on an unwinnable war against it, yet it's now the drug of choice in the West. How did the cocaine economy get so huge? Who keeps it running behind the scenes? Tom Feiling travels the trade routes from Colombia via Miami, Kingston and Tijuana to London and New York. He meets Medillin hitmen, US kingpins, Brazilian traffickers, and talks to soldiers and narcotics officers who fight the gangs and cartels. He traces cocaine's progress from legal 'pick-me-up' to luxury product to global commodity, looks at legalization programmes in countries such as Switzerland, and shows how America's anti-drugs crusade is actually increasing demand. Cutting through the myths about the white market, this is the story of cocaine as it's never been told before.

What Others Have To Say

The New York Times
"What sets Feiling’s book apart is his analysis of how America’s insatiable appetite for narcotics and its zealous determination to quash those cravings have spread misery and violence across the globe."

The A.V. Club
"Over and over, Feiling shows how small the gains have been in the war on drugs, compared to the destruction it’s left in its wake—both in terms of the devastation cocaine can have on its users, and in the amount of violence that war has caused, particularly in Latin American countries where corruption runs rampant, and the mafiosi who control the terrain regularly kidnap and murder anyone in their way, from rival dealers to crusading journalists."

The Guardian
"This is all entertaining information, but where the book starts to go astray is in allowing a polemic against prohibition to inform not just its argument but its tone."

The Telegraph
"Far more repulsive are the South American drugs warlords, while Feiling’s account of the vile conditions, terror, corruption and exploitation in Medellín or Kingston will make many readers shudder. The sicarios (hit men) of Medellín have 37 words for gun, 73 words for death, 42 words for violence – rather as Eskimos are said to have for snow."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Book Review: Susan J. Douglas, Where The Girls Are

Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass MediaPublisher/Year: Times Books, 1995

Susan Douglas’ examination of the last fifty years of popular culture and mass media in her insightful book, Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female With The Mass Media, is a wonderfully frightful and grossly fantastic journey. Fantastic because she actually grew up with the very music, television, and magazines she analyzes and can therefore pass on “I was there and I survived” truth moments. Frightening because, for all her analysis, the book ultimately illuminates how far women have come, and yet not, in terms of the how the mass media constructs and projects images of women.

Douglas’ intertwines women’s history with personal antecdotes with a deft hand. Her main thesis is that women, caught between feminine desire and feminist repulsion, are "cultural schizophrenics." She constructs her argument around the history of the love-hate relationship of women to the mass media. From the music of the Shirelles, to Ariel from The Little Mermaid to Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem, Douglas successfully outlines the paradoxical situation of women who reside in a culture inundated by sexist imagery. Such imagery is perpetuated by a mass media obsessed with coding femininity and masculinity according to patriarchal ideology. Using personal "schizophrenic" moments embedded in the everyday functionings of popular culture in tandem with a feminist content analysis methodology, Douglas extracts and illuminates those pivotal moments in women's lives and society's consciousness that are culturally significant and psychologically bruising.

Quite simply, women's cultural schizophrenia is defined by a dynamic where women "rebel against yet submit to prevailing images about what a desirable, worthwhile woman should be" (8). According to Douglas, women's cultural schizophrenia arises from the fact that "the mass media raised us, socialized us, entertained us, comforted us, deceived us, disciplined us, told us what we could do and told us what we couldn't" (13). Because the mass media plays a central role in our socialization, it continually bombards women with mixed messages regarding what women should and should not do, what women can and cannot be. These mixed messages have resulted in an erosion of a unified female self because women have learned to simultaneously compartmentalize themselves into a host of personae when presented with an array of media archetypes and stereotypes. As a result of this process of compartmentalization, women are ambivalent toward femininity on the one hand and feminism on the other.

One of Douglas's key points is that one cannot assume that "the media is all powerful, or that the audiences are just helpless masses of inarticulate protoplasm" (16). She argues that audiences resist media images and messages all the time by turning off the television, by ignoring the magazine advertisings, and by yelling “bullshit” at billboards. Douglas is careful to point out that some images are harder to resist than others because the mass media has taught women to continually place themselves under the constant scrutiny and surveillance of male eyes. The mass media does this through the production, reproduction and promotion of patriarchal ideals of femininity and womanhood. But by overtly appealing to women's femininity however, Douglas argues that the mass media also cultivates a certain degree of awareness and consciousness that incites women to rebel against those sexist and stereotypical images by flipping the page or by “flipping the bird”. In Douglas' words, "we love and hate the media, at exactly the same time, in no small part because the media, simultaneously, love and hate women" (8). Therefore, our viewing of mass media and its messages is both feminine (submitting) and feminist (rebelling). It is this fluctuation between love and hate, submission and rebellion, that gives rise to women's feminine and feminist viewing positions within and of popular culture.

The notion that women have a dual viewing position because it is both feminine (submitting) and feminist (rebelling) contributes a new angle to the wealth of research completed in the area of feminist cultural studies. Because 'looking' is such a central part of the reception of an image, feminist cultural theorists examine the ways in which the act of looking is constructed to reflect gender divisions and the social relations of patriarchal power. Viewing pleasure and displeasure arise through the confrontation between the reader's experience of reading the text and the reader's social experiences influencing the interpretation of the text. Examining woman's "cultural schizophrenia" impacts how feminist theorists understand women's pleasure/displeasure because it establishes a viewing position based on women's subjectivity as textual readers. By acknowledging women as active contributors to and negotiators of their viewing experiences, one can begin to understand the totality of the female viewing experience in relation to popular culture.

Understanding the totality of the female viewing experience is exactly what Susan Douglas is attempting by arguing that women occupy a dual viewing position in relation to popular culture. By asserting that women oscillate between a feminine viewing position, characterized by love, desire and pleasure, and a feminist viewing position, characterized by hate, questioning and critique, Douglas understands that women's consumption of popular culture is a circuitous and interactive process because women are both emotionally and intellectually stimulated by that which they are consuming. In other words, we interact with the images placed before us because our cultural schizophrenic nature requires that consumption not be a passive reception of images but rather, an active process of reading the images in order to ‘debunk’ the sexist and patriarchal foundations perpetuating their production. The result of this interaction is that women are positioned to continuously oscillate between a feminine and feminist viewing position because they are at once the surveyed and the surveyor, the object and the subject.

Where the Girls Are is a highly enjoyable romp through the narcissistic pleasures of Vogue, the identical twin craziness of The Patty Duke Show, and the political machinery of the ERA movement. Her pragmatic re-workings and re-tellings of the female mass media experience using her own lived experiences over four decades is unique, refreshing, and exciting. Using numerous popular culture examples, Douglas' presents women as the surveyed and the surveyors on the basis of their subject positioning rather than their textual positioning. By granting women the power of the look, Douglas validates her own and every other woman’s feminine/feminist schizophrenic popular culture existence.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Mark: "Death, Be Not Proud" - An In-depth look at Wit

Wit: A PlayWit is Margaret Edison’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a middle-aged woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In 2001, director Mike Nichols and actress/screenwriter Emma Thompson joined forces to bring this unflinchingly honest story to the small screen. The result of this pairing is an exquisitely rendered drama about dying and death and living and life.

Vivian Bearing (tenderly rendered by Emma Thompson) is an English literary scholar who has spent her life deciphering the compounding thematics of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry. She is archetypal of someone who has focused on her head over her heart. As a result of this focus, her colleagues and students view her as being cool and aloof, unable to relate to the living world.

The film opens with Bearing discussing her diagnosis of stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. Her doctor, Dr. Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd) is trying to convince her to undertake a grueling eighth-month experimental chemotherapy treat. His method of convincing includes appealing to her perceived strength, that she needs to be “tough” to get through. What is unspoken yet clearly understood by both parties during this exchange is that this treatment is not going to save her; it is merely a means for Kelekian to gain data for his research.

Vivian is most stoic throughout the following events, which include an uncomfortable pelvic exam administered by a former student. As she continues to be prodded and mistreated by technicians, and then treated as a mere specimen rather than a person, Vivian’s resolve slowly starts to crack. Through direct camera engagements, Vivian lets the audience into the loneliness that is suffocating her, the terrible side effects of the chemotherapy that are killing her, and the ever-spreading cancer that is destroying her.

We see Vivian’s life in the form of flashbacks occurring at various stages of her treatment. These flashbacks provide windows of insight into the evolution of Vivian Bearing the scholar and Vivian Bearing the patient. We witness a very special moment between a very young Vivian and her father (Harold Pinter), who encourages her enthrallment with words courtesy of The Runaway Bunny. We see her working with her mentor E.M. Ashford (Eileen Atkins), who encourages Vivian to experience the world outside the text, to live life beyond the words.

Vivian uses her intellect and wit to shield herself from life and now the anxieties of death. The play mirrors her life in the character of former student Dr. Jason Posher (deliciously played by Jonathan M. Woodward with all the clumsiness required), an ambitious clinical fellow in charge of her case. Posher’s revelation that he took on research so that he would not have to deal with people is quite telling, as is his cavalier mentioning that he hated the bedside manner course he was required to take to complete his medical degree. His discomfort with people is just another version of Bearing’s, and she begins to realize that she never really taught her students anything about being human outside the textbooks.

Vivian finally comes to accept that the chemotherapy is not working and begins reaching out to people for comfort. Dr. Posher shuts down, as he is unable to comprehend how to bridge the gap between practitioner and researcher until the very end. Comfort comes in the form of Susie (played by the classy Audra McDonald), her nurse, who listens to Vivian’s concerns about death. There is an especially touching scene where the two women share a popsicle and discuss Vivian’s code status. It is however the scene with Bearing’s former mentor near the end of the film that truly ties the story together by providing a very strong, emotional coda to an already heavily emotional journey.

The play and film are all about the small moments, the little vignettes that are set up to illustrate the evolution of one woman’s existence through her journey to death. Susie tenderly rubbing lotion on Vivian’s hands as she lies unconscious from the chemotherapy seems to be a common everyday occurrence and yet we know, as the audience, that it is anything but a random act of kindness.

Nichols and Thompson have managed to capture the tenderness and nuances of the play extraordinarily. This may be Thompson’s best performance of her career as she gets to use her comedic and dramatic skills in equal doses. She is riveting as the distanced Bearing, flawlessly rendering each scene in perfect emotion and intellect and, of course, wit.

Wit is indeed all about performances, and the cast is remarkable in talent and depth. The last moments of the film are so achingly unpretentious in this respect that it is incredibly difficult to not tear up and truly feel the loss of an extraordinary life and person.

Book Mark: The Abstinence Teacher, Stephanie Plum Hitting the Big Screen

Not sure how I feel about this news:

The Abstinence Teacher
Sandra Bullock is reportedly joining Steve Carell and the producers of Little Miss Sunshine - Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, and Polly Johnson - for a new flick called The Abstinence Teacher, based off the 2007 book of the same name by Tom Perrotta.

Bullock will star as a liberal sex education teacher who clashes with her conservative middle America town, and ends up falling for her daughter's born-again Christian soccer coach, played by Carrell!

Steve Carrell is far, far away from how I envision Tom Mason. Too much 'aww shucks'-ness that doesn't gel with the character. But then again, maybe Carrell will turn out to be ideal in the role.

One for the Money
It's been a very long wait for Janet Evanovich fans. But finally the Stephanie Plum movie appears to be a go. Reese Witherspoon was attached to the project for three years, but that deal never came together. Now Katherine Heigl has stepped in as the bounty hunter with an attitude in One For the Money.

Janet Evanovich announced this on her website, but has not made any comment about the casting. Perhaps she, like me, is too shocked for words. Witherspoon was all wrong, but Heigl steps that up ten notches on the wrongness scale. This is a rather large misfire, and the rest of the casting only looks marginally better. Daniel Sunjata as Ranger? Mmm, maybe. Jason O'Mara as Morelli? Mmm, an Irish man playing an Italian, mmm, not so much. Sherri Shepard as Lula? Mmm, okay, that can work as she has the comedic chops.

Maybe I am just tied to this series too much. I discovered the books during a very emotional time, and have a lot invested in the characters. Do not want this to go the way of the V.I. Warshawski attempt back in 1991. Yeah, anyone remember that unfortunate accident?

What are your thoughts on this casting news?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Changes to Comments

I have hit my patience level with those individuals who believe that spamming comments is fun. Not sure if any of you have this issue, but it has gotten worse over the past few months here and I'm tired on seeing them and deleting them.

So for now I have changed the comments settings to add in additional security. Hopefully this won't dissuade anyone from posting legitimate comments, but will stop all the malcontents who have nothing better to do with their time than troll the internet to place their spam comments.

Have a great day!


Table of Contents: The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector: A NovelAuthor: Allegra Goodman
Publisher/Year: Dial Press, 2010
Synopsis: Emily and Jessamine Bach are opposites in every way: Twenty-eight year old Emily is the CEO of Veritech, and twenty-three year old Jess is an environmental activist and graduate student in philosophy. Pragmatic

Emily is making a fortune in Silicon Valley. Romantic Jess works in an antiquarian bookstore. Emily is rational and driven, while Jess is dreamy and whimsical. Emily's boyfriend, Jonathan, is fantastically successful. Jess's boyfriends, not so much--as her employer George points out in what he hopes is a completely disinterested way.

Bicoastal, surprising, rich in ideas and characters, this is a novel about getting and spending, and about the substitutions we make when we can't find what we're looking for: reading cookbooks instead of cooking, speculating instead of creating, collecting instead of living. But above all it is about holding on to what is real in a virtual world: love that stays.

What Others Have To Say

The Los Angeles Times
"...Goodman makes us care so much about each character and his or her individual story —- not what will happen but how it will affect these people we've come to know — that the pages cannot turn fast enough."

The New York Times
"We’re always told there are recipes for disaster and recipes for happiness, but where exactly those recipes are to be found is anyone’s guess."

The A.V. Club
"...Goodman’s naturalistic dialogue tethers even the most hurried plot twists to the people whose value to each other hangs in the balance."

The Washington Post
"'s awfully charming, but the book's charm is grounded by a searching contemplation of contemporary values in the age of sudden fortunes, sensational bankruptcies and terrorist attacks."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Line By Line: Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the End: A Novel"We had any number of clocks surrounding us, and every one of them at one time or another exhibited a lively sense of humor."

"We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy. "

"Hank Nearly was an avid reader. He arrived early in his brown corduroy coat, with a book taken from the library, copied all the pages on the Xerox machine, and sat at his desk reading what looked passebly like the honest pages of business. He's make it through a three-hundred-page novel every two or three days."

"almost nothing was more annoying than having our wasted time wasted on something not worth wasting it on"

"We thanked each other. It was customary after every exchange. Our thanks were never disingenuous or ironic. We said thanks for getting this done so quickly, thanks for putting in so much effort. We had a meeting and when a meeting was over, we said thank you to the meeting makers for having made the meeting. Very rarely did we say anything negative or derogatory about meetings. We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other."