Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting by Clara Parkes

I’ve never been very interested in reading books about people who love knitting, or even about their relationship to knitting, it just sounds…boring.  That was before I discovered Clara Parkes.  Her life in relationship to knitting is interesting.  At first she reminded me of someone I once knew; as I read more from her book, she became good company, like that friend that unexpectedly shows up to walk you home on a dark, miserable night.  Then she made me laugh and later she made me cry.  At that point I realized that her relationship with knitting was a reflection of my relationship with knitting and there really is a correlation between casting on, binding off, and life experiences.  Yes, Clara Parkes has found a way to pair knitting techniques, like forming a bobble, to a life experience.

This book was an unexpected delight to read and I hope someday to accidentally meet the author.  I’m pretty sure I’d love her.  -JW

You can visit Clara anytime by following her blog.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

On surface, this is a movie of contradictions.  It is a vampire story that only rarely indulges in horror imagery.  It is a gothic tale set in a blasted and deserted Detroit and in the orange, turquoise and sepia landscape of nighttime Tangiers.  Its vampire couple are married, but connected by spirit rather than proximity as the story begins.  It is a quiet movie with a languid pace, intercut with sudden flashes of humor or unease.

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are the titular vampire lovers, who reunite at the beginning of the movie;  he is depressed by the state of the world and she takes a nighttime flight to join him in Detroit.  Their marital renewal, though, is cut short by the arrival of her "little sister", played by Mia Wasikowska, whose careless behavior disrupts their lives and puts them at risk.  They flee together, but their chances for survival are diminished at best.

Jim Jarmusch directed this film, and more than anything else, it conveys his interest in connecting stories, music and people across distance.  In this case, the vampires are connected by time as well, with the metaphor of the immortal vampire who has lived through so many changes only to be threatened by the slow poisoning of the more ephemeral world by their human prey (whom Adam calls "zombies" without irony) a powerful reminder of richer days gone by.  The connections formed by the characters are referenced in the movie as part of Einstein's theory of quantum entanglement, or "spooky action at a distance,"  and the director has created juxtapositions throughout that enforce this idea.  In a strange way, this emphasis on "spooky action" and its relationship to the vampires' love makes this one of the most romantic movies I have recently seen.     -BR

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman, George Perez, and others.

DC re-wrote its own comics universe with this collection of stories which began in the late 1980's, to simplify and clean up all the various storylines.  The plot begins with a being known as the Anti Monitor, who begins a campaign to destroy all of existence, systematically wiping out numerous alternate realities.  In other words, he is erasing from reality the homes of the various DC heroes who inhabit all of these parallel Earths.  To stop him, his opponent--The Monitor--draws heroes from across the worlds to fight the threat.  It was emphatically a turning point for DC.

While the story itself is interesting, this compilation reminded me why I like Marvel better.  While I like Superman, Batman, and DC's female heroes like Wonder Woman and Oracle, I wasn't really engaged with the passive one-dimensional characterizations of many of the heroes.  In contrast, Marvel has over the years taken pains to create human, rounded characters, and to tell their stories from multiple viewpoints.  Likewise, while the artwork is great, the story plods in the middle, as each universe is taken out in turn. The finale was pretty good, but now I’m mad at DC for killing off some of their best characters, apparently forever.   So while it’s an excellent storyline in itself, I’m not really happy with the results. -LP

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Friday, January 2, 2015

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos

Recently I found myself in one of those rare times where I didn't have a strong urge to read any particular book from my reading list and no one had offered a strong recommendation to me on what to read next.  Naturally, I decided to take a gamble and look at some recent award winning books under the assumption that if a book won a prestigious award then it must, at the very least, be pretty good.  Age of Ambition is the most recent winner of the National Book Award for Non-fiction, and since I don't know a lot about modern China (and guiltily felt that I should), I decided to give it a go. 

Evan Osnos is a journalist and staff writer for the New Yorker.  This book is a good example of experience journalism, meaning that the bulk of the book is about the author's experiences as a foreign correspondent living in China (as opposed to an exhaustively researched history).  Or rather, it's about the author and the many people that he meets in his time in China.  Osnos interviews a lot of Chinese residents, from popular cultural figures to rank-and-file members of society, and he lets these conversations do the talking.  He offers a fair amount of history and facts when necessary, and does a good job of explaining the social scene and situation in China, and how it came to be.  Ultimately, though, he lets the powerful personal stories speak for themselves.

I really liked this book, and found it to be a good mix of informative, poignant, and entertaining.  The information was engrossing and led me to burn through the book fairly quickly.  I like that he let the personal stories of the people do most of the work, because it really is the best way to get a good grasp of life in modern China.  I learned a lot about contemporary China and its history, especially concerning Mao and the rise of Communism.  The chapters on gambling in Macau (gambling being an illegal practice in China) and the rampant corruption in the Party were so incredible that they were hard to believe.  I haven't read the other Nation Book Award finalists, but I can easily see why this book won.  A fantastic read, and one I would highly recommend. -CA

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Monday, December 22, 2014

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

Alan Clay might be a modern version of Harry Stoner, Jack Lemmon's character from the film "Save the Tiger," or a slightly more hopeful Warren Schmidt, of the novel and film "About Schmidt."  By this I mean that his story shares with these and other works a sense of both the pressures and potential emptiness of a life given over to working in Corporate America, and the struggle of these characters dealing with their lot in this world.  Alan is a man trying to maintain his lifestyle and pay his daughter's college tuition, after his dreams of success as an entrepreneur turn sour, leaving him in severe debt as he hits middle age.  Attempting to make a new career as a consultant, Alan travels to Saudi Arabia as part of a team scheduled to present a new kind of software to its king--the hologram of the title.  Upon arrival, though, his mid-life crisis takes over, his disorientation in this new environment only adding to his difficulties as he and his team find themselves relegated to waiting around for a royal visit which may never occur.

This is a well-written, fast read which veers from pathos to satire to social commentary in turns.  The people that Alan meets are an unusual mix of sympathetic locals, corporate suits, and transplanted foreigners, and he seems to drift from one situation to the next in his encounters as he looks to find something meaningful in peoples' reactions to him or to build something tangible and real in his own life.  His father worked in a factory.  Alan once sold bicycles that were made in America, until his company closed and the jobs went overseas.  Now Alan is attempting to sell a virtual reality device to someone who is only politely interested at best.

While it's well worth the read, I have to say that this book may not be enjoyed by everyone.  I read it with our Turning Page Book Club, and the response of most of the members was not all that positive.  I think that much of the group's reaction could be attributed to Alan's hang-dog personality traits, and to the meandering nature of the plot.  I will agree with some reviewers, too, that some of the social commentary aspects, especially with regards to the author's anecdotes on America's loss of jobs to overseas markets, seem forced to me at times.  I am recommending it, though, to readers tolerant of satirical, mid-life crisis tropes, and to anyone looking for a fascinating, slightly fantastical, view of a culture many Americans know little about.     -BR

This title is currently available as a Book Club Kit. (Also, in researching the title for this blog, I discovered that a movie adaptation is underway, starring Tom Hanks and set for release in 2015.  Very interesting!)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Set in the future, Red Rising tells the story of Darrow, a 16 year old. Born as a Red, he is in the lowest Caste, in a world where your color means everything. While Reds are unskilled manual laborers: thought of as stupid and worthless, Golds are the rulers and overlords of the world. Living on Mars, Darrow is a driller, duped into believing that his life threatening efforts will one day make the planet inhabitable for the other colors. Content to live his life for the sake of others, he is happy with his family and young wife. But he soon realizes that his life is a lie. Miles above on the surface of Mars, the other colors are already living there; happy to let the Reds live in the cavernous mines below. When tragedy forces Darrow into a rebellion, he gains the opportunity to infiltrate the Institute, a training school for the elite Golds. Surgically altered to appear as a Gold, he mercilessly trains both body and mind in order to fit into their ideal mold. But the Institute is not an ordinary school. Meant to weed out the weak, Darrow soon finds himself in a war amongst his fellow pupils. It is kill or be killed, and the winner will gain the opportunity to apprentice with the most powerful Gold overlords in the world. Seeing this as a way to destroy the Golds from within, Darrow will stop at nothing to win.

This book is really hot right now. Everyone is reading it. It has been compared to Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies and Ender’s Game. One would think it is a YA book, since the protagonist is 16, but this is definitely an adult book. This book is filled with graphic violence, and I kept thinking that if they ever make it into a movie, which undoubtedly they will, it would be pretty grotesque to watch. But that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I sailed through it. The storyline is very fast paced. You never know who Darrow can trust, and there is a twist near the end that I didn’t see coming. However, the writing is not the greatest. The book is written in the 1st person, and Pierce Brown tends to have the protagonist narrate everything in his mind to the reader rather than letting the action and dialogue come from the all the characters: “Then she said this. Then this happened. Then they said that. Then I went over there.” This writing style got pretty tedious. I find it kind of insulting that this book would be compared to Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, or even Hunger Games, as those books are all far superior. But hey, maybe you will disagree. And with the 2nd book, Golden Son, coming out in January, it is clearly very popular with the masses. I already have it on hold, and am hopeful that with Brown’s newfound success, he will have found a better editing team that will help correct the writing mistakes from his first book. LT

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wild Truth by Carine McCandless

Author Carine McCandless is the sister of Chris McCandless, the young man who perished in Alaska and was the subject of the book and movie Into the Wild.  She recounts their tumultuous childhood at the hands of abusive and manipulative parents, and offers an explanation as to why her brother would cut family ties, abandon civilization, and journey to Alaska in search of simplicity, purity and honesty.  Contributing factors include their parents' duplicity, the realization that his father had another family (Chris had a step-sibling the same age as himself), and the discovery that Chris and his sister were illegitimate.  According to Carine, their parents carefully protected their public image as an all-American, church-going family, masking ugly realities.

Readers who enjoyed the earlier book may be curious, as I was, to explore the backstory of Chris' ill-fated trip into the wilderness.  The story of Into the Wild haunted me, in part because Chris resembled some of my former students and my own son with his idealism, his intellect, and his disdain for materialism and hypocrisy.

Even though the author stands to benefit monetarily from her book in the same way she felt her parents exploited Chris' demise for personal gain, Wild Truth proved to be an enjoyable and worthwhile read that addressed earlier unanswered questions.  She asserts that wandering into the Alaska bush was not a crazy thing for him to do, but, in her words, "was the sanest thing Chris could have done."   -MS

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