Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: Tender Grace

Take an unimaginative plot, add clunky writing, and the result is a book that is very difficult to read for extended periods. That's precisely what we have here. Widow Audrey Eaton is having a hard time dealing with the death of her husband Tom. Two years after his death she is still staying in the house watching hour upon hour of television. To try and deal with her grief she decides to take an extended trip west. Along the way she meets some "interesting" characters and starts to notice some "tender graces," as she calls them, which gradually reshape her outlook on life. The book is written as a day-to-day account of Audrey's trip. Though this is a slender volume, it was extremely difficult for me to finish, as it suffers from several significant flaws. First, the plot is entirely predictable. Throughout the book I knew exactly where the story was going. Second, the characters in the story were entirely unbelievable. Audrey and Tom Eaton are apparently people without flaws (unless you count grief as a flaw, which is all the character development Stark allows Audrey). They produced perfect children, and have perfect friends. It's difficult to invest much sympathy or interest in characters like these. Third, the writing is clunky and awkward. The prose is littered with pop culture references, including, but not limited to, Stacey and Clinton of What Not to Wear, Law and Order, and more. The prose is generally sophomoric in tone. Ultimately I couldn't recommend this book. There must be better fictional accounts of grief than this.

Jackina Stark, Tender Grace (Bethany House, 2009) ISBN: 0764205757

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Compass Points Challenge

And another! I loved the sound of this challenge, so I've decided to add this one in too. Running from March 1 through August 31, 2009, the rules are as follows:

Between March 1, 2009 and August 31, 2009, you must read one book each with a title echoing the four main compass points: North, South, East, and West. These can be from any genre, fiction or non-fiction but they must have the word north, south, east, or west in the title.

Here's what I'm thinking thus far:

North: By the North Gate by Joyce Carol Oates
East: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
South: Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France by Nicholas Delbanco
West: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

These are, of course, subject to change.

Classics Challenge

I've decided to join the Classics Challenge because, quite frankly, I need to read more of them. The rules are as follows:

Classics: We love them, we hate them, now we are going to challenge ourselves to read more of them.

**Choose Your Level
1. Classics Snack - Read FOUR classics
2. Classics Entree - Read FIVE classics
3. Classics Feast - Read SIX classics

I will be going for the classics snack, as I am not entirely sure how much of an appetite I will have, and at least one of my choices is quite long. Here's what I'm thinking about:

John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

This list is, of course, subject to change.

This whole event goes from April 1-October 31, 2009.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: The Culture of Fear

This book focuses on the sort of public media scares that have, and continue to, grip the American public. It argues that not only are these episodes of mass hysteria completely unfounded, they are actively detrimental to the American population. From fears of car-jacking and plane crashes to those of silicone breast implants and unwed teenage mothers, Glassner uncovers significant evidence that these threats were grossly overblown, even in the face of hard countervailing evidence. So, that raises the question of how these non-issues become the basis for widespread fear. On this Glassner is clear. He places the blame squarely on the media and lobby groups. The frequency and the tone with which the media presents scare stories leads to their power and proliferation. Glassner certainly shows the existence of significant scares, and offers compelling evidence that many of these were overblown. As for Glassner's second contention, that these fears are actively hurting Americans, his claims are not uniformly sound. One of the strongest parts of this book is Glassner's discussion of the ways in which unreasonable fears perpetuate racism against young black men. Many are well aware of the failures of the heavily-funded war on drugs, and how the conditions of poverty, hunger, and lack of opportunity are completely ignored. But some of Glassner's claims are just as far-fetched as the media events he studies. Claiming that airline crash hysteria is dangerous because people who might fly would otherwise engage in the more dangerous activity of driving is specious at best. The bulk of this book is a series of topical chapters on various hysterias. In his conclusion Glassner addresses the question of why Americans are so susceptible to these scares. Here, Glassner points to one of the phenomena that has defined the lives of Americans in the second half of the twentieth century: celebration of the culture of experts. Each of these scare campaigns gained legitimacy through public pronouncements made by those who appear to be knowledgeable experts. Each of these campaigns has loud, publicly-oriented experts of its own. And experts seem reliable. Herein lies the danger. Professionalization began in the United States in the 19th c., as practitioners in certain fields sought the hallmarks of professionalism: standards, limited entry, national organizations, and peer review. In the wake of WWII, as American culture celebrated higher education, especially science, Americans came to respect, even celebrate the culture of experts. They sought experts to analyze and improve all areas of their lives. The very standards of education and professionalization suggested that expert opinion was trustworthy, that it was best. This very trust has allowed for the manipulation of the American public. In a culture in which expert opinion is revered, and the very fact of expert status suggests qualification, it becomes difficult to determine what is reasonable trust and what is not. In seeing Glassner's conclusions, it becomes clear that one of the problems is surely too much news. With 24-hour news channels, programs like Dateline on television every night of the week, all of this airtime has to be filled with something. This creates an atmosphere ripe for exploitation. This book certainly made me think, however, I suspect Glassner might be preaching to the choir. People who are reading academic sociology are likely not the same people who drink up hours of sensationalist news without a second thought.
Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic, 2000) ISBN: 0465014909

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review: Knockemstiff

This collection of short stories details the lives of the residents of the southern Ohio town of Knockemstiff. A working class region of Appalachia, each story details the life of one of the residents of Knockemstiff. What these people share is few opportunities, a world full of frustrated violence, and the hope-crushing realities of poverty. There's much that's depressing about Knockemstiff, Ohio. Characters with good hearts repeatedly find themselves trampled by others' greed and violence. Knockemstiff is a tough and lonely town, and yet, this is a collection of stories well worth reading. Pollock's characterizations are deep and complex. This is a world foreign to many of us, but one effectively created by Pollock.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Review: Sloth

This book is one of seven in a series on the seven deadly sins. Originating in a series of lectures, Oxford University Press has published them. This volume consists of Wendy Wasserstein's musings on sloth. Written as a parody of a self-help book, Wasserstein tells us that sloth is the new route to health and happiness. This is a funny book. Wasserstein is a comic talent, and she shows it here. Wasserstein mocks the impulsive culture of diet and self-improvement, but there is a serious side to her critique as well. In her last chapter, Uber-Sloths, Wasserstein dishes out some directed criticism at people who do a whole lot of nothing. The people who race from gym to group to meeting to engagement, enjoying none of it, and all for the sake of being so important as to be busy. This book is a quick read that made me laugh, and also made me nod in agreement.
Wendy Wasserstein, Sloth (Oxford, 2005) ISBN: 0195312090

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review: Crazy

These autobiographical novel recounts the school days of young Benjamin Lebert: disabled, facing his parents' divorce, failing out of school, and shipped away from his native Munich to boarding school. We see Lebert's coming of age and dealing with the trials of adolescence in boarding school. Lebert shares the loneliness of boarding school life with his fellow students, and they quickly form intense bonds. The book puts in stark relief all the hopes and fears a world of teenagers can produce. Ultimately, this is a touching look at teenage life.

Benjamin Lebert, Crazy (Vintage, 2001) ISBN: 0375409130

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

This is an utterly bizarre and tremendously enjoyable read. This novel follows a summer in the lives of professional idler Ebin Willoweed and his family: the perennially unhappy and tyrannical Grandmother Willoweed, the family servants, and Ebin's three children, including the daughter who is clearly the product of her mother's affair, as she is half black, and Ebin Willoweed is not. One might think that this forms the storyline, but it does not. Hattie Willoweed is completely accepted by family and community. Her mother's infidelity adds a layer to the already dysfunctional antics of the Willoweeds. The real story is miserable plague, which follows close on the heels of a flood. As villagers become horribly ill then commit suicide in fits of fury, it becomes clear that something strange is afflicting the town. Comyns recounts for us what happens to the undeniably bizarre Willoweeds in a bizarre set of circumstances. The consequences are bittersweet and surprising. I stayed up late reading this book- it really kept my attention, and I read it all in one sitting.

Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Penguin, 1987) ISBN: 0140161589

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review: Tea: The Essence of the Leaf

If you're at all "in" to tea then you probably already know most of the information contained in this book. This is a basic primer on tea: how it's grown, processed, prepared, and enjoyed. Scattered throughout this information literary passages relating to tea, recipes that incorporate tea, and absolutely beautiful photographs. Indeed, the photographs are essential to enjoyment of the book. I would recommend this book to someone who's just gaining an interest in tea and wants a one-stop source for basic information. Tea aficionados will likely find little they don't already know, though the recipes do sound good, and I'm planning to try some of them.

Sara Slavin and Karl Petzke, Tea: The Essence of the Leaf (Chronicle Books, 1998) ISBN: 081181632X

Monday, February 2, 2009

Review: The Clever Woman of the Family

This book has many of the elements of a classic Victorian novel. There's the long-suffering, nearly saintly invalid. There's a helpless widow, and there's a buffoonish curate. And most importantly, there's an independent-leaning woman whose spunk and desire for knowledge make her foolish. In Yonge's novel we enter the world of Rachel Curtis, the so-named "clever woman," who loves to read the latest tract on educational theory, and hopes some day to put them into practice for the benefit of local youth. But Rachel is also a provincial daughter, and there are few opportunities for an independent and knowledge-hungry woman in the provinces in 1865. Rachel disagrees strongly with women acting flighty and foolish for the benefit of suitors or the clergy. What Rachel values is substance, but she finds little of it in her provincial surroundings. Those around Rachel see her as arrogant and foolish. When Rachel is finally given the opportunity to put her theories into practice, the consequences are more devastating and far-reaching than anyone could have imagined. As I began this book I presumed it was a comedy of manners, but as I got deeper in, I discovered that the book is more than that. The themes are much darker, and consequences more surprising than that. Yonge has drawn some compelling characters in this novel, but there were parts of this story that fell flat. Rachel's mother is the fussiest of Victorian ladies, and we see just how limited that lives of Victorian women like Rachel were. Rachel's ultimate fate will likely not surprise most modern readers, but getting there takes twists and turns I certainly wasn't expecting.

Charlotte M. Yonge, The Clever Woman of the Family (Penguin, orig. pub. 1865, 1986) ISBN: 014016149X