"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Ruined" at OSF

Ruined , by Lynn Nottage and directed by Liesl Tommy (click here for link to all plays, then click on Ruined for synopsis)

This is a great piece of playwriting, beautifully produced and performed by OSF. Bravo! Sincere and harrowing, emotionally engaging and probably deserving to be called great theatre. There's humor and humanity amidst the difficult content, and even quite a bit of wonderful music, though its ironic dramatic purpose undercuts the pleasure an audience member can take in it. There - I've said what everyone else I know has said about this play, and I agree: this prize-winning play is a must-see.

I agree even though, personally --and I know this is shallow of me--I'd so rather watch a Bollywood movie with singing, martial arts scenes and romance. Or see a beautiful Kathak or Bharatnatyam dance, or hear a symphony or chamber music or local jazz, or do any number of other things rather than sit through two and half hours of this excruciating play again. Like most people, I prefer experiences that make me feel better, not worse. The trick of great art is that it can take you through a harrowing experience and bring you out the other side stronger or wiser or generally glad for it - in other words, make you (yes) feel better. For the people I know who've seen it this play - set amid the ongoing war in the Congo, layered with history and politics, and focusing on the abuse of women by men at their worst - this seems to be one of those cases, and they enthusiastically enlist others to see it. The friend I saw it with had already seen it and was going back for more. So I think my own lack of emotional response to Ruined is not the play's fault, it's mine for being burned out (emotionally ruined, you might say) on the subject of human atrocity long ago. 

Many people have commented that Ruined offers some hope at the end, and it's clear from some devices and plot turns (which I won't cite here, in case you haven't seen it yet) that Nottage intended that effect, at least to some extent. But for me it just seemed to end in one of those occasional moments of growth and relief that life sometimes affords; these people, like people anywhere, can be happy or enjoy themselves now and then ("in the midst of death, life persists," as the video of "Bethe Bethe Kese Kese," which I've thoughtfully included for comfort and edification among the pujas and tonics in the column at left, reminds us); but that doesn't mean there's any real hope that this sorry species will ever evolve into something less prone to endlessly repeating cycles of self destruction, cruelty and suffering.

Still, we do what we can while we're here. Some people write brilliant plays, and others produce and perform them equally brilliantly for the rest of us - who, in turn, go to see and ponder them and, maybe, grow in compassion a bit, and do some small thing to alleviate someone else's suffering, or... whatever. Anyway - Bravo.

Yes, Ruined is probably what's called great theatre. Complex, nuanced, shocking, and universal. So if you are a theatre-goer you'll want to see it. Not because (as I've been told by some people around here) you "need" to see it (though maybe you do), but simply because it's brilliant as written, and brilliant in this production, and once this run is over, you won't have another chance.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Time to read again: Charles Pellegrino and Dust (book review)


Charles Pellegrino's books really get into my brain, stir things up, and lodge there, waiting to reappear later. I love the way he thinks. I find him tremendously exciting. He's sometimes called "controversial" (the author of the Wiki article beats that drum) and some people get downright nasty about him. As his website rather puckishly proclaims,
Most books and theories receive average, or middle-of-the-road reviews. Pellegrino’s reviewers are never middle-of-the-road. The bell curve isn’t even in it. People either love him, or they hate him.
Great observation - "The bell curve isn't even in it." It would be interesting to pin down what it is about Pellegrino that divides intellectuals like that; probably if we could locate them on a bell curve describing something else, the lovers and haters would correlate to early and late adopters of change, and perhaps liberal vs conservative social bias. Obviously I'm in the former camp. I think he's just brilliant, and don't find criticisms of him particularly compelling - either on their own merits, seen in the context of his work as a whole, or in light of the fun and inspiration he gives me as a reader. And sometimes, when he is arguing a value or an ethical point (such as his insights into the nature of real leadership, or when he exposes academic scapegoating and skulduggery), he's an intellectual knight in shining armor, telling truths nobody else is willing to admit.

Pellegrino's a polymath, known for a variety of accomplishments despite being subject to chronic fatigue syndrome for years -- authoring computer games, adventuring with James Cameron in the discovery of the Titanic (and more recently as a consultant on Avatar), and writing nonfiction and science fiction in which he synthesizes compellingly over diverse fields of study. I've read quite a few of his books and always feel he's a bit of a kindred spirit. I wish he'd write a whole lot more - I don't care what about; anything he does is sure to be intriguing. In this and future posts, I'll find some of these books and reviews. First up:

Dust: A Novel (1998) - a stunning near-future eco-thriller

All too often, in the years since I first read and reviewed this near-future novel, events have parallelled what Pellegrino warns of here, and I have felt the reality of it on a deep level because this book had taught me to see them for what they were: dire environmental tipping-points in a tragic and probably irreversible downward entropic spiral. The story begins with the disappearance of tiny motes, which doesn't sound so bad to most people; next it's bats, also not a particularly popular animal; and before you know it all hell breaks loose. And by the time it's over, surely any reader will see why even the smallest organism matters to the whole, including humans.

Recently, bees began disappearing in our world and it's encouraging to me that so many people are genuinely troubled by the phenomenon; but it's been a while now, and still no solution. And how about the huge plastic soup growing in the Pacific (see Bag It), or the gigantic oil spill playing out as I write this, in the Gulf of Mexico (now called the Gulf of Oil)? Disasters don't come larger than these - or do they? How many such disturbances can the earth's life support system accommodate before it's just too many, and the unthinkable happens? We don't know. Maybe it's time to re-read Dust and be mentally prepared for what comes next. This is from my review, recommending the book to adults and older teens, in SLJ:

Stephen King fans, science fiction aficionados, and students of the environment [come to think of it, any intelligent, caring person] should enjoy [well, "enjoy" might not be quite the right word] this stunning near-future eco-thriller. The story hurtles the reader forward like a runaway train as nature's complex balancing mechanisms rapidly come undone and scientists race, using every skill their professions command, to salvage something from the ruins.

Human costs and scientific principles are explored as Pellegrino skillfully weaves his story from many strands: the demise of the dinosaurs, genetics, space stations, ancient Babylon's economic collapse, mad cow disease, and the psychology of mobs and demagogues are just some of the elements that move this plot forward. How is so much disaster bearable for the reader (even one who likes a horror story)? A healthy amount of humor, ranging from sly to sledgehammer, leavens the narrative, while at the same time, believable characters and familiar cultural icons anchor the reader amidst what would otherwise be overwhelming chaos.

Perhaps most of all, for me this book works because of the author's gift for catching his readers up in the creativity and excitement of scientific minds at work. In a satisfying Afterword, Pellegrino discusses the facts and theories he has presented in the story.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Three OSF plays so far....Hamlet (I liked), She Loves Me (and I loved it), and Well (of tiresomeness)


So far I've seen three OSF plays. Plenty of time to catch them all as the season goes through October! But soon the Green Shows will begin, and the outdoor Elizabethan Stage will open, and I've already missed out on several great lectures and tours. You just can't do it all!

I mentioned the "hip hop Hamlet" in an earlier post. It is an amazing production and I want to see it again - and then will probably have more to say about it. Last week I saw the Kenneth Branaugh full-length version of the play on DVD, which was beautifully done and kind of fascinating - hadn't heard many of those lines in years, though they were all still familiar. But for me seeing a play in the theatre is always better than in a film. Now I might read the play again before seeing the OSF production again - from a closer seat this time, because everyone says Dan Donohue's (Hamlet) facial expressions are not to be missed. Here's a review I liked.

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Light, but not condescending: The musical She Loves Me is also not to be missed. I wasn't sure what to expect from what threatened to be an old chestnut - the latest version of this oft-produced 1930's Hungarian play was, I think, You've Got Mail, translated to modern New York, and even that is dated now. I'd seen an earlier Hollywood version too, the wonderful classic Shop around the Corner, which kept the European setting of the original play, more than once over the years. And there was a Hollywood musical (but I'm not a fan of those) In the Good Old Summertime, which I don't remember seeing.

I hadn't even been very aware of this 1960's Broadway musical, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick; it won a Tony, but in 1963, I was in India and totally cut off from what was going on in the US, and I'd never seen a production of it since then. I see it was revived in the Nineties, but I was otherwise occupied then, too. Anyway I needn't have worried; the OSF production is fabulous! First-rate in every way. It's more a light opera than a musical, actually, in that much of the dialog is sung, and it's all seamlessly put together.

This production is a jewel box, a truffle, a treat. Among the many high points is seeing Dan Donohue, who plays Hamlet in the other production, in a hilarious cameo role. I'm a fan! It's just an exquisite entertainment all around - light, but not condescending. I suspect this play could be really awful in a lesser production, but everyone concerned put their hearts and their considerable talents into this one. Here's a very positive review that parallels my experience of the play: Theater review: OSF's 'She Loves Me' a perfect blend of charm, wit, musicality and artifice By Marty Hughley, The Oregonian

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Well: Well... "Ceci n'est pas une play"? I'm afraid I agree with this negative review. (By the way, this same reviewer really liked Hamlet, so he's not just a grouse.) I was afraid this might be a depressing play, but I really wanted to like it - unconventional staging; lesbian playwright and humorist; mother-daughter and health themes against a historical backdrop of racial integration, from what I'd read, and it sounded intellectually interesting at least. As it turned out, both expectations were wrong. It wasn't depressing, but I didn't like it much either. In fact as I was driving home,  a one-word review popped into my head: "Tiresome." For me, it was repetitive and slow and labored and self-conscious. The adjectives keep coming: arch, pretentious, obnoxious, even amateurish.


Still, I'd be interested to see this play again under a different director. Maybe that's where it fell down. It did have some great moments and some interesting ideas, and most of the audience received it warmly enough - though there wasn't even the hint of a standing ovation (which seems almost expected in this warmhearted town for anything halfway good). But then, the way it ended, nobody was quite sure what was going on or if it was really over; the lead actress never took a bow (typical of the unconventional - excuse me, metatheatrical -staging). That confounding of expectations, too, was in keeping with the rest of the play, but I think it backfired. People just shuffled out eventually. And if this mess really was intentional, then it was a big mistake IMO because a playwright can't afford not to engage an audience. I mean, really, what's the point of writing a play for an audience if you don't even try to reach them? Well, I think the writing attempted it, but the execution failed. Probably.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wilma Mankiller leaves us

Damn, we just lost another great one. At the bottom of this blog, like foundation stones, I've been adding, when I learned of their deaths, small tributes to extraordinary people who have been inspirations in my life. Now another - Wilma Pearl Mankiller, Cherokee chief and American national leader.

Recently I'd added a Mankiller quote to my blog banner -"We must trust our own thinking"- because that bit of wisdom echoes the very first epiphany I remember having as a child: the rock-solid realization that although people often told me I was wrong in my understanding, almost always, in time, my own understanding proved to be right after all; and so I learned that although my thinking isolated me from others, I could trust it. I realized that when other people invalidated my insight or certain knowledge, it wasn't even usually about me (well, except maybe in the case of bullying siblings!); rather, had to do with their need to hold something different in their minds. They had some other priority that was more important to them than their relationship with me.

It was a lonely thing to learn, but character-building (perhaps), and in any case I could not have stifled my own thinking if I'd wanted to. Since I couldn't trust what others told me, I learned to figure things out for myself, and trust my own judgment, and bide my time. And enjoy my own company. It's no easier as an adult, of course, to be patient with those who don't see what I do, and socially I'm Aspie to the core, lacking the brain circuitry for good social skills. Those with a charisma gene, on the other hand, can pull others into their orbits, and if these people are leaders like Wilma Mankiller, it's a good thing. They're the ones who will move the species forward, if that's possible, or at least improve the world for the rest of us for a time. And the rest of us are inspired by them to do what we can in our much smaller ways.

When I first heard of Wilma Mankiller many years ago, it was at a time in my life when I was coming back to myself after being battered, and her name sang out to me - how beautifully fierce! Of course it was a coincidence, a patronymic, but still. She said herself that "I've run into more discrimination as a woman than as an Indian," so that name must have been a double-edged sword for her in her political life; she came before the public eye at a time when there was great fear of women's liberation in the culture at large. She must really have gotten tired of explaining her name to journalists. But ultimately its mythical resonance - a warrior's title - just fits her historical stature. Here's a brief obit, and this tribute vid by Aphrodisiastes on YouTube (I usually hate "Amazing Grace" but somehow it works for me here when given an American Indian - is this version Cherokee? - treatment; and the vid has some fine quotes).

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Patron Saint of Red Chevys (book review)


This book is a nice counterpoint to another I just revisited, Anthony Groom's elegant Bombingham (reviewed here). That told of a young African-American boy's coming of age in Alabama during the Civil Rights era in the Southern US. This one is about a girl from a European-American family in Mississippi during the same historical period.

Of course in a larger sense we're still in that era, and still struggling to come together, as we have been ever since slavery -- even as scientifically we now know there's really no such thing as "race" at all. But then it was always about culture and economics, not biology. Anyway - I really liked this book, too.

The Patron Saint of Red Chevys by Kay Sloan (2004)

Jubilee and her sister are young white teens in a small Mississippi town in 1963 when their father discovers the body of their mother, Bernice, fatally stabbed in her lovingly maintained red 1948 Chevy truck. Bernice's jazz singing in town, and her tolerant views on race, had made her unpopular locally with other whites, and rumors about the murder persist for years as the family struggles with the aftermath of the tragedy.

Jubilee is very much her mother's daughter. She takes charge of her mother's Chevy truck, with its hula-dancer dashboard ornament (Bernice's "patron saint"), and the vehicle becomes for her a surrogate mother and magic carpet ride through many adventures as she grows up. Thanks to some of these experiences, such as a visit to the State Fair with other white teens on what turns out to be "Negro night," Jubilee becomes certain that she will never fit in, in Mississippi. When she sees a magazine photo of students in Berkeley, California she has a sort of epiphany, and she knows she must go there and be a part of the country she sees in the picture. Somehow, she does manage to get there and start a new life.

At first, in Berkeley, Jubilee is as much an outsider as she had been in Mississippi, and that's disapointing, but eventually she does find friends and a life for herself there, and gains new perspective on her family, too.

Sloan captures amazingly well the spirit of involvement and confident experimentation that supercharged the Bay Area in the 1960s, and she paints vivid images of the Northern California landscape that formed the background to that cultural movement. [I particularly appreciated this aspect of the novel, since I grew up in Northern California and deeply appreciate the landscape there. As for the Bay Area, I was there too during the time Sloan writes about. That time and place are rarely portrayed by writers in a way that feels true to me, or does them justice, but Sloan succeeds.]

The broader context of Jubilee's life, America in a major period of transition, is equally well portrayed, and it's interesting to revisit that time now, when we're in another such time of turmoil, a backlash of racial prejudice whipped up by a minority but made large by the media. A novel like this puts things into perspective.

The book received recognition as a young adult novel by the ALA, and indeed older teens can enjoy Jubilee's strong voice and will identify with her search for her heart's true home during years of wrenching change. But it wasn't really written, published, or promoted for the YA market (which starts with much younger readers), it was written for adults. Adult readers will find this an interesting view of fairly recent times, especially if they are old enough to remember them. And of course they will see the coming of age theme from a very different vantage point. 

For me, the juxtaposition of Mississippi (which feels like a completely alien culture to me even now) and Northern California (my home ground), as experienced by the same character an a single story, shed a new sort of light on my understanding of the US as we are now.

[adapted from my SLJ review]
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Here's an interview with the author about the writing of the book - http://www.southernscribe.com/zine/authors/Sloan_Kay.htm
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PS - looking for an illo that might have been the magazine photo that inspired Jubilee to move to Berkeley, I came across these two - the first from the sixties, the second from 2008 (from
http://clog.dailycal.org/2008/11/05/takin-it-to-the-streets-obamas-win-provokes-post-election-euphoria/ )... gives one hope.
















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Finally - If two books make for a trend, I'm feeling in a "midcentury coming of age stories" frame of mind here, between Bombingham and Red Chevys. Two more books come to mind - Walter Moseley's Blue Light, set in the Bay Area in the Sixties, and Patti Dickinson's Hollywood the Hard Way: A Cowboy's Journey, about an Oklahoma boy's journey west across the Fifties landscape. All four books are very different from one another yet they all convey a wonderful sense of the time and perhaps, read together, they'd make a very interesting discussion series. Too often the Fifties and Sixties are seen as different worlds, but really they were a seamless story, if you were paying attention.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai (book review)

Really quick review... Here's a book I loved when I reviewed it for SLJ and then read again because I didn't want it to end - and found even more in it on the second reading. My best friend adored it too. This is one you can really get lost in - setting, characters, story... Where is my review copy now? No doubt I wanted to share it with someone. I must find another copy and read it again. Wonder if it's in audio format - it would make a great audiobook!

Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai (1999)

Colombo, Ceylon, in 1927 is a fragrant, lush, and beautiful city. For the Kandiah family - a mother and three young daughters living in a simple bungalow within the exclusive Cinnamon Gardens suburb - it is also politically complex, socially restricting, and heading irreversibly into an unknowable future.

The eldest daughter, Annalukshmi, wants to be a teacher, but according to the rules of her time and society, she must relinquish that work if she marries. Negotiating the often-illusory pathways of romantic hopefulness, she ultimately makes some surprisingly mature choices.

In counterpoint to Annalukshmi's story is that of her uncle; he loves his wife and his son but continues to struggle with his homosexuality and is thrown into crisis when his old lover arrives in Colombo.

Through these characters, and others, the many segments of this diverse colonial society come to life. We see how beliefs, values, and personality characteristics determine people's lives and actions - and how those values, though exercised with the best of intentions, can be completely at odds with those of others.

In his compassion for his characters, in the telling details of dress and architecture, in the dialogue that captures in a few words the essence of universal issues, Selvadurai shows the genius of a Jane Austen. Yet, with equal adroitness, he portrays the national and international, religious, political, historical, and cultural controversies of a much larger stage. Surrendering to the romanticism of Sri Lanka's past, the reader gains a new perspective on the present time and place.

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Here's another more recent review in a very readable blog I just found. It goes into more detail about the story in a way that wasn't possible with the SLJ review short form.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day is about Peace

A day late but it's never too late for what John Perkins writes here - every year someone reminds us of how Mother's Day started, with a proclamation by Julia Ward Howe stating, in part,

"We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

And now daughters too, of course (and theirs). And of course all the civilians who are injured too. Not to mention killed. And that's just the beginning of an understanding of the harm done. Howe's view of war (just soldiers injuring other soldiers?) seems strangely quaint these days, but her vision of compassion and connection is timeless, and applies to all of it.

Books I've recommended while holding my nose

[Update 3/1/12: favorite blogger Jabberwock has just published a review written in the same spirit as what I'm talking about here and I must share it. I suffered with him - and appreciate the job he did here: http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-bollywoods-top-20-collection-of.html ]

Occasionally I reviewed books for the SLJ column that I didn't much like, but for one reason or another the book needed to be covered and I was asked (or I volunteered) to do it. The short format didn't allow much room for depth, detail, or documentation, but I got a lick in wherever I could. Here are some of those reviews (somewhat expanded and sometimes annotated), just for fun. They might be the only ones I had doubts like this about, and I just remember them better, like problem children. Don't get me wrong - these books were worth recommending on various merits, as I saw it; they just weren't to my taste. But to be a fair reviewer or critic, you can't simply indulge your own preferences.

The Ethics of Star Trek by Judy Barad and Ed Robertson (2001)

For 35 years, Star Trek has been a popular vehicle for exploring social issues. Its humanistic values and optimistic view of the future have inspired many young people in their career choices, and the ethical dilemmas that drive much of its drama have provoked debate among generations of fans.

Other authors have explored the physics, metaphysics, and "meaning" of the series; here, a philosophy professor, with a co-writer, uses the ethical content of its story lines to present a survey of Western philosophy. This method of conveying information might be rather convoluted, but anyone reasonably familiar with the series should be able to follow the authors' arguments.

It is a little harder to accept the authors' assertion of what they term a "unified theory" of Star Trek philosophy - a format in which each of the four Star Trek series embodies the ethical values of a particular philosophical system (Aristotelian virtue, Kant's duty theory, existentialism, and Platonic virtue).

Spock fans might be disappointed by the authors' sketchy treatment (and sometimes faulty use) of logic, while others could be irritated by the occasional intrusion of the authors' personal beliefs, their sometimes condescending tone, uneven literary style, rambling digressions, or failure to cite sources.

Still, autonomous young people voyaging boldly into an ever-changing future, and seeking an ethical system to steer by, could do far worse than to follow the Star Trek model as Barad and Robertson interpret it. And even if they aren't looking for a course in philosophy, serious aficionados of the series will find plenty of material here to sink their humanoid teeth into.

[I'm a longtime Star Trek fan - added the illos here; they're not from the book. Isn't Guinan a wonderful character? Who needs a philosophy course when she keeps popping up, anyway? BTW, when I referred to the authors' personal beliefs in the review, I was talking about a blatant right-wing "Christian" agenda.]

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The success of the movie Precious reminded me of this novel I reviewed in 1999. The book was getting a lot of coverage and attention in the high school age group. It was well done, and would appeal to teens, but personally, it really appalled me at the same time. And so it was one of those books that I recommended while at leastly partly holding my nose. A difficult review to write! But the book did end up on Notable Book lists, so what are you gonna do... Anyway, I haven't seen Precious (nor do I want to) but if you did, and liked it, you might be interested in this book...

Imani All Mine by Connie Porter (1999) 

Imani is a baby whose name means "faith." Her mother, Tasha, is a 15-year-old African-American high school honors student. Tasha's mother is emotionally distant and the teen resolutely turns away from the attempts of other well-meaning adults to help her. Gradually, it emerges that Imani was conceived as the result of a rape, but Tasha cannot see anything of the hated father in the baby.

Daily occurrences in Tasha's life include gunfire, encounters with crack dealers, cleaning up after her mother's alcoholic friend, and her first willing sexual encounters (with a boy as confused as she is). Porter tells this story entirely in dialect, and although the lack of quotation marks sometimes creates confusion, for the most part the narrative draws readers into this teenager's life.

The author is particularly successful at portraying the adults in Tasha's life: teachers, relatives, and neighbors are believably and often amusingly complex even while Tasha's view of them remains that of a child.

(SPOILER ALERTS:) In an emotionally wrenching ending, Imani is killed, the victim of gang violence, whereupon Tasha finds faith of a different sort through her community, in a church. But in a final twist that makes sense allegorically even while it is perhaps the most inexplicable development of all, Tasha chooses to become pregnant again. [WTF?]

Whether seen as a tale of hopelessness or "faith," this tale is sure to find a passionate readership among many teens who will hear a kindred spirit in Tasha's vivid, unforgettable voice.

[sigh]

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Almost forgot about this next one, and I take full responsibility for picking it to review and deciding to recommend it. It may have been a mistake - or maybe not. I think at the time I thought it was an important series and had a wide readership... and the book did have content to recommend it (I remember being impressed by the description of an environmentally destroyed Earth, the unambiguous portrayal of unbridled capitalistic greed, and the story arc about the unionization of the asteroid prospectors). Bova's Grand Tour series is truly something to be reckoned with, in its totality, even if it isn't perfect. I'm just now getting caught up on some of the more recent volumes (I liked Titan rather a lot) - but as you can see from this, there are things I don't like about Bova as well and this one had some over the top and, I thought, quite unnecessary brutality that made it iffy as a recommendation. Anyway, here's this one...

The Rock Rats (Book 2, The Asteroid Wars) by Ben Bova (2002)

Book Two in a series that chronicles the struggle for control over the rich resources of the Asteroid Belt. In this not-too-distant future, the quality of life on Earth has taken a serious turn for the worse, but new frontiers are opening up on the Moon and beyond.

Unfortunately, only the richest and most powerful individuals have been reaping the benefits so far, but perhaps those who take the most risks will win the upper hand in the Asteroid Belt - if these fierce individualists can ever agree on anything. Hard-bitten prospectors brave the dangers of space to find that lucky strike, the mineral-rich "rock" that can make them wealthy, returning for supplies and to hang out at the saloon on Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Belt. The last thing they're interested in is politics.

Meanwhile, a ruthless industrialist schemes from his base on the Moon, stopping at nothing - including the murder of several sympathetic characters [a major no-no IMO] - to own it all. Prospector Lars Fuchs and his wife Amanda fight to survive, encouraging the denizens of Ceres to form some sort of society to protect their common interests.

Readers who enjoy plenty of action, do not require much in the way of characterization, and have a high tolerance for a rather vicious sort of violence should enjoy this book. It's not Bova's best, but his many fans should be entertained and intrigued.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

In which I thumb my nose at skeptics and fuddyduddies: A quintet of magical books (book reviews)

Early in my time as librarian-reviewer for School Library Journal, aka SLJ (recommending adult-level books to adults and older teens - and no, I'm not in that cover photo, I just liked the image), they sugested that I write an opinion piece about UFO literature. My working title was "UFOs: True, False, or Does it Matter?" I expected them to think up their own title, but they went with that one. Which I regretted, because I hadn't thought much about it. What I really meant by it was not that UFOs don't matter, but that framing the subject as "true or false" was not a meaningful or useful kind of question in the context of our work. (Don't we all hate true-or-false questions?) This researcher summarizes my argument nicely, in this chapter of an interesting book on the uses of contemporary folk literature, so I won't repeat that here.

IMO most of the publishers who specialize in subjects such as UFOs, magic, witchcraft, Tarot, metaphysics, and contemporary folklore tend to publish a lot of junk (but then I guess this is typical of most publishers, actually). Still, some good authors do sneak into their ranks from time to time.

The books we considered for recommending in the SLJ "Adults/High School" short-review column had been published for the adult market, but on our committee we were on the lookout for any that would also appeal to, or be recommendable to, older teens who were reading at an adult level, as well as to the intended adult readers. Therefore (with a few exceptions) the books we reviewed there were all recommendations. (That's because if we didn't think one of these adult-market books was a good one to recommend to older teens, there was usually no reason to mention it at all.)

Needless to say, given the medium (reviews aimed at school and public librarians and their customers/patrons) and the controversial (for many librarians - and/or the parents they'd have to answer to) nature of this kind of subject, I had to be rather picky about what I recommended, and careful how I did it. So it was a neat kind of challenge. The thing is, I'm just as skeptical about skeptics as I am about believers. I like having an open mind about just about anything, and can entertain opposing views with no difficulty at all. It makes living on the planet more fun.


Spellbound: From Ancient Gods to Modern Merlins, a Time Tour of Myth and Magic by Dominic Alexander (2002)

This attractive, fact-filled volume offers a bracing and clear-headed approach to an often-confusing subject. A scholar of religious history, the author shows that science, religion, and magic "have always enjoyed a more complex relationship behind the scenes than their manifestos would suggest."

Alexander's own perspective is unequivocally that of the scientist: there are few paranormal thrills here, but neither will readers find justification for religious dogma - and the treatment of myth isn't really aimed at the Joseph Campbell crowd, either. Yet readers can be entertained, challenged, and enlightened as the author demystifies many traditionally occult subjects, and they might be inspired to think more critically about contemporary beliefs.

The book's brevity could disappoint, and certain conclusions irritate, some knowledgeable readers, but Alexander's broad cultural perspective and tolerant insight into human psychology inspire confidence and command respect. The subject covered in the most depth is witch-hunting, and these chapters serve as a powerful warning (both to potential finger-pointers and accused) of the appalling human cost of such campaigns.

Abundant illustrations, from ancient times to Harry Potter, reflect a wide range of topics and relate cleverly to the text. With its solid content, stylish graphics, and eye-catching sidebars, Spellbound can be browsed casually or read cover to cover. Whatever preconceptions readers might bring to this book, they will find much good information and a trustworthy foundation for further study.

(That book was actually published by Reader's Digest Association. I have no idea how it got past their notoriously right wing bias, considering its expose of religion! Probably because of the solid academic credentials of the author - and maybe they didn't read it too carefully?)

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Tarot Tips by Ruth Ann Amberstone and Wald Amberstone (2003) 

Here, the cofounders of the Tarot School in New York offer a "simple, direct, practical" approach to what is usually presented as an esoteric topic. Drawn from the school's e-mail newsletter, the content here reflects questions asked by students.

Tips are grouped into six chapters dealing with types of decks and their care and handling; interpretation and meaning of cards; reading techniques; types of spreads and layout design; other uses of Tarot (for example, in meditation); and ethical concerns that a practitioner might encounter. The writing is clear, light, and literate. Whatever their level of knowledge and expertise, students will feel that they are in the company of friendly, down-to-earth mentors and colleagues.

Those who are simply curious about the subject will find an accessible view of today's eclectic Tarot as it is experienced by real people. This engaging and useful book provides a unique and valuable contribution to the subject.

(With that one, I just brazened it out.)

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Garden Witchery: Magick from the Ground Up by Ellen Dugan (2003)

With good-humored flair, Dugan offers a practical introduction to gardening that incorporates an eclectic blend of Wiccan and magical traditions rooted in solid horticultural practice. The author encourages readers to work hard to make the garden "a place where both our metaphysical and ordinary lives begin to thrive together."


Outlining basic principles such as working with the directions and the elements, moon phases, and color, the author shows how this lore, rooted in a respect for nature, also forms the basis of good gardening practice. She offers succinct and useful information on a great variety of topics such as astrology, fairies, herbal spells and charms, crafts, and journaling, and on dealing with an equal variety of garden situations and types.

Throughout, she suggests excellent sources for further information, including the Extension Service, the Poison Control Center, and the public library. The extensive bibliography mostly covers literature about magic.

The good advice and sound horticultural practice found here can help novices and/or budding garden witches to discover their own style and get off to a solid start, and can also enrich the experience of those who are already knowledgeable in gardening or magic.

(With that one, my background in horticulture and a Master Gardener certificate provided most necessary grounding/legitimacy for reviewing the book; I also asked a local certified herbalist to look it over, and she approved all the content.)

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The Dark Horse Book Of Witchcraft by  Mike Mignola (Author, Artist), Gary Gianni (Author), Tony Millionaire (Author, Artist), Jill Thompson (Author, Artist), Scott Morse (Author, Artist) (2004) (Comic/Graphic novel)

This anthology by the top fantasy publisher, featuring such top artists as Tony Millionaire, Mike Mignola, and Jill Thompson, has predictable appeal to fans of graphic novels and high-quality comics. However, the images chosen for the cover and the book design, which evoke the Dark Ages, belie the range, depth, complexity, originality, and ambition of this remarkably modern compendium. (This is why I'm not including an illo of the cover, here.)

The eight substantial horror tales include cartoon witches from Macbeth, a "Hellboy" story, and one set in Salem. Illustrated mostly in color and in widely different styles, each one draws readers into another perspective on witchcraft and the place it holds in the Western cultural imagination. A "rare, unexpurgated" version of Clark Ashton Smith's "Mother of Toads" is a disturbingly clear and explicit expression of the vicious misogyny that underlies many stories on the subject.

At the other end of the psychological scale, in "The Truth about Witchcraft," High Priestess Phyllis Curott speaks personably as a scholar and insider, providing a reality check that amplifies the dark fantasy of folklore and lends the collection another dimension and still greater depth. That–and the concluding animal fable, "The Unfamiliar," a heartbreaking morality tale–will challenge some readers with much more than they bargained for.

(No problem about reviewing that one: as a graphic novel or "comic book," it wouldn't be taken seriously from the get-go. The real subversion was in the way the publisher treated the subject with respect.)

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Animal Miracles: Inspirational and True Stories  by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger (1999)

The Steigers, coauthors of a great many popular works on a wide variety of outre subjects ranging from angels to UFO abductions, focus here on latter-day animals as heroic (and perhaps angelic) beings.

They begin with the story of Brando, a mumbling macaw who had never spoken an intelligible word until he suddenly came out with a clear and urgent "Help me! Somebody please help me!" (thereby alerting his householders to the plight of an injured man). The book then offers 50 brief anecdotes that tell of amazing and seemingly miraculous animal feats.

Since many of these selections were sent to the authors by readers of their previous books, they reflect a variety of spiritual traditions. A similar diversity is shown among the animal heroes, which include not just cats, dogs, and dolphins but also crows, a potbellied pig, one very large and one very small sea turtle working in tandem, sea lions, and even a rat in a coal mine.

After about 175 edifying pages that describe deliverances from such dangers as fire, drowning, sharks, and unreasoning fear, the Steigers touch very lightly upon a number of related topics including the health benefits of pets, pet ghosts, and animal ESP.

Satisfactory and enjoyable browsing material for adults, teens and ESL readers.

(Books with "miracles" in their titles are not as likely to be targeted by the usual set of book censors.)

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Related posts:
Seven Seasons of Buffy
WomanSpirit Index
Fantasy literature rich in magical tradition

I'll try to find my UFO-type reviews and do a collection of them, too. Fun stuff! Maybe that'll happen by my NEXT birthday... [Update: well, that didn't take long. I'd already started a draft, so I just finished it.]

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bombingham by Anthony Grooms (book review)

Earlier I posted this review under the wrong title and was pleading for someone to tell me the right title - because I remembered the book so vividly, but had lent or given it to someone long ago and never seen it again. Long story short, the Internet problems (on other sites) attaching my review to the wrong title have since been corrected and here it is, title and review together once again. It's a very fine book and I hope people are still reading it. Here's the wiki on  the author, Anthony Grooms. (And at the bottom of this you'll find a link to a really good article about this book, and Grooms, by Ishmael Reed.)

Bombingham by Anthony Grooms (2000)

Walter Burke, a foot soldier serving in Vietnam, is trying to write a letter to the family of a friend who has been killed, but he can't find the right words. Memories triggered, he veers from the horrors of the present to those of his past as a black child in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. All mental paths lead to an examination of violence (sometimes graphically portrayed).

Though the narrative returns to Vietnam periodically, this is chiefly the story of a period in Walter's childhood in Birmingham, whose black residents have dubbed "Bombingham" in recognition of the KKK's preferred method of attack there. In his memories from childhood, Walter may be seeing an epic struggle, but he is young and his view is artless: he simply notes that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "spoke encouragingly" to the crowd; and when he sees Dr. Abernathy arrested, he is most troubled by the lack of respect shown the man. His worldview is dominated by his family life; that, too, is in crisis, and his best friend leads him into every sort of trouble, including dangerous encounters with police at demonstrations.

Some readers will be frustrated by the novel's slow accretion of detail and the meandering plot of this beautifully crafted piece of fiction, but those who can adjust to the pace of the protagonist's thoughtful inner life will come to know and like him, and have a vivid and memorable experience of his world.

(adapted from my SLJ review recommending the book to adults and older teens)

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Whoa! Talk about being outclassed! And of how wonderful the Internet is... Looking for an illo of the cover of the book, I came across this great piece, "In the Line of Fire," by none other than Ishmael Reed, who was discussing Bombingham and Anthony Grooms, back in 2001.
(Here's an illo from that piece. Isn't this the face of a writer you'd want to read?!)

Bronte Sisters Power Dolls!

Couldn't resist this. A friend posted it on Facebook. The authors Phil Lord and Chris Miller say: "This was a fake commercial we made in 1998 for a series of educational shorts about action figures based on historical figures. Its educational value was somewhat suspect. It was never aired."

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Burnt Bread and Chutney (book review)

Here's a good example of a memoir that goes into dimensions far beyond a simple story of immigration from one country to another. The author writes:
"From the outside, no matter what the gradations of my mixed heritage, the shadow of Indian brown in my skin caused others to automatically perceive me as Hindu or Muslim. . . . Still, I trekked through life with the spirit of a Jew, fleshed out by the unique challenges and wonders of a combined brown and white tradition."
This is a multidimensional synthesis of culture and historical roots. Here's a really quick review I wrote when it was published, hoping to steer readers toward a very dfferent kind of book, one I found utterly fascinating and very moving...

Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Cultures-A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl by Carmit Delman (2002)

In a readable, often-poetic style, Delman shares a highly personal story of youth, adolescence, and inner discovery amid the "eclectic, often eccentric potpourri of cultures" that formed her.

The author's mother was born into the Bene Israel community, a small group of Jews who lived near Bombay. This community is said by some to have migrated to the Indian coast even before the destruction of the Temple, and (though it has been fast disappearing since the creation of Israel and the migration of its population to that country) for centuries continued in its isolation to practice ancient traditions predating the development of law that defines other Jewish communities.

The author's grandmother (who had a particularly problematic marriage, under Bene Israel custom) emigrated with her daughter (the author's mother) to Israel. There, Delman's mother met and married her father, an American Jew of Eastern European descent. They moved to the US, where Delman was mostly raised -- but she also chose to spend summers on a Kibbutz in Israel. Her nuclear family was strong and supportive, but a scandal in her grandmother's generation continued to divide her maternal relatives in subtle, destructive ways that the author only gradually came to understand.

Delman manages something that few writers can do: bringing the reader sympathetically into the turmoil of her own complicated, rebellious, experimental adolescence. She tells of her alienation from mainstream American Jewish culture because of racial differences and economic inequalities. She describes her heavy-metal teenage rebellion in 1980s' America, and follows that up with a clear account of a confused yet liberating time of experimentation during her college years.

But at the heart of Delman's story is her Indian Jewish grandmother, beloved Nana-bai, a remarkably courageous woman who negotiated even more hazardous terrain. Her unimaginable life is revealed through a journal she left behind (and through her granddaughter's empathetic insight), as Delman reconciles her own identity with that of her grandmother's. And ultimately, this is the treasure the memoir offers: the discovery of truths not owned exclusively by any culture.

(adapted from my SLJ review)
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For a much more detailed review, I highly recommend this one: http://www.kulanu.org/links/burntbreadchutney.php

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Updated: Pakistan Revisited: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (book review) and a local program on Pakistan (updated)

This updates a post I wrote last May. Last year my friend, Bert Witt put together a fascinating program about Pakistan and the changes it's seen in the past decades, and presented it to our Mountain Meadows community here. I'm very happy to say that Bert will be presenting an updated and expanded version of his program to a much wider audience at OLLI (which used to be Elderhostel but is now open to the whole community) in Ashland. Watch for it at OLLI April 20th 1-3 pm: "Pakistan and Afghanistan: 2014?...2024?. . .2034?. . "

Back to the program last year: With wonderful photos he took in the eighties, and updated with news stories and photojournalism, Bert brought back many memories of my own short time there long ago. More important, somehow (and I still don't know how Bert did this), in an hour-long presentation, he conveyed a sense of the complexity of what Pakistan currently deals with as a nation. He held the standing-room-only audience enthralled and amid the facts being dealt with, there was an overall atmosphere of caring concern about the people in that country.

I wish this were a documentary film I could recommend, but it was just a local case of an individual person sharing what he knew with other local people - who, in turn, cared enough about this subject to come out for the program in droves. I wonder how many similar, unheralded events are going on in this country as people try to understand what's going on on the other side of the globe; I suspect, quite a few. Here are some photos of that day taken by Bert's son Matt.



Then Pakistan nudged me again; I was reminded of the book I'm reviewing here when one of my favorite writers, Jai Arjun Singh (author of the always-interesting blog, Jabberwock), posted an interview with writer Rahul Mehta. In the select list of Mehta's favorite books, along with another of my own favorites, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, he included The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This gave me a little push (since this blog began - and to an extent, continues - as a collection of my reviews) to include something about that excellent book here.

So from the panoramic view of Pakistani valleys and social classes presented by Bert, we go to the other end of the telescope. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the fictional interior journey of just one upper-class Pakistani into the corresponding American mindset, and then back out again to find his own center. There is a lot of good fiction - and nonfiction - on this theme of mulitiple cultural identities today; it shouldn't be surprising, since for a generation or two, at least, national cultural boundaries have been giving way, all over the world, to the newer economic powers we see as "globalization." Perhaps the familiar fictional theme of immigrants going from one country or culture to another has been morphing for some time now into another kind of fiction that's more reflective of a less national and more global consciousness...

And so this novel's protagonist is from Pakistan, but he comes into the world with some conflict about that country, since his family had fallen on hard times and his own place in Pakistani society is not secure. After he comes to the US he's almost more of an American, in his mindset, than many who were born  here, because he takes to our sociopathic economic system (and Establishment college milieu) rather naturally and rises rather comfortably into the realm of the Haves in this society. But then global events force another choice between his old country and his new one. The well-chosen title is typical of the quality of writing here; I really like the layered use the author makes of the word "fundamental," playing the concept of Islamic fundamentalism against the American form of fundamentalism - the business fundamentals of our soulless economic system.

Searching the Internet for the text of my SLJ review (recommending the book to adults and older teens) I noted that the novel has received a lot of critical praise and attention - and apparently it's being made into a movie by the director Mira Nair! That should be interesting. And here's a BBC podcast of an interview with the author. I'm glad to see all this continuing interest in the book, even though it meant that my little SLJ review was harder to find among all the big guys. Here's what I wrote at the time, adding a little elbow room here to the necessarily truncated word-count of the SLJ column format:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007)

In a Lahore market, Changez, a Pakistani, is confronting an American spy bent on assassinating him. He manipulates the encounter, seizing the chance to tell his story—and to be heard.

Changez's narrative style (monologue, or perhaps an imagined dialogue) can be distracting, but it clearly reveals his interior world and motivations. He tells of coming from an upper-crust but financially reduced Pakistani family, attending Princeton on scholarship, having a complicated romance with a WASP (a fellow Ivy League student), and triumphantly winning a job with the most elite of New York financial companies.

To succeed there, he must focus on the economic fundamentals of companies targeted for takeover while setting aside any concern about the human suffering his analysis will cause. He's willing to do this, and is very much at home in culturally diverse Manhattan - that is, until 9/11, when everything changes for him.

Then, Changez rebels. As  if waving a red flag in front of his Wall Street employers, he grows a beard - but it's in solidarity with his culture of origin, not as an indication of religious fundamentalism. Although he appreciates the opportunities he's been given in the US, he finds he must now reject the role America has been playing in the world - a role his own work, in the financial sector, had been very much a part of until then. Ultimately he returns to Pakistan, where he becomes a popular professor known for activism. And as an activist academic (even though not an advocate of terrorism) Changez is now, in America's official view, an enemy.

Multiple culture shocks over a short space of time have shaken this intense young man's life, and his journey is fast-moving and suspenseful. Some readers might not warm to Changez's cold brilliance, ambition, and class-consciousness, but the growth he experiences through college, his crisis of disillusionment, and his eventual meaningful engagement with the larger world could capture the imaginations of thoughtful readers.
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This 2011 update was also prompted when I saw this story: "Accused murderer is CIA agent" since the man the protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is confronting is there in the market to assassinate him.

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Above, I cited a BBC podcast. For more, at the Powell's Books site, here's a short essay by the author about the evolution of the book, which should be of interest to fellow writers. I'm tempted to quote his final paragraph here but will leave it to you, in context. But do check it out.

And an interview with Divanee; here's an excerpt, about Hamid's choice of the name "Changez" for his protagonist:
DM: Why did you choose the name Changez for your protagonist?

A: Well, there are many different reasons. Changez is an interesting name. There are connotations in it of conqueror and somebody who is blood thirsty and completely resolute and unstoppable and in that sense Changez [the character] works in this kind of corporate army, and it felt like an appropriate name....Another reason why is because I wanted to play with the notion that he isn’t a religious fundamentalist. And, Changez or Genghis, Changez of course is the Urdu name for Genghis Khan. And, Genghis was known for coming in and ransacking the Arab Muslim world. And it would be highly unlikely for a fundamentalist to have the name Genghis because it is a name which is considerably reviled in traditional Arab Muslim culture. So, for both of those reasons I thought it was a very good name for this character to have.
Pretty interesting stuff. I'd thought "Changez" was a dual-language pun, a Pakistani name that sounded like the English "Change" or "Change-o" because the character is something of a chameleon. Wishing everyone good reading!

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Some other Pakistan-related material here: http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/01/forbidden-beats-of-freedom.html and check out the Afghanistan posts in the tag cloud at the bottom, since so much of both countries is shared.

and here's another story that caught my eye, from Lakshmi Gandhi: http://lakshmigandhi.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/are-pakistanis-posing-as-indians-after-times-sq-incident/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog
This is a journalist I'm definitely following.