Monday, January 25, 2010

Book review: YA dystopian fiction

Much has been written about The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Inspired by reality show competitions, war coverage and the Greek myth of the Minotaur of Crete who devours sacrifices of Athenian youth. As Collins explained, "Crete was sending a very clear message: 'Mess with us and we'll do something worse than kill you. We'll kill your children.'" 

The book deserves the accolades, but in spite of my admiration and reading pleasure I grew frustrated by a forced romantic triangle and the stretching out of a story that could be well told in one, maybe two, books but was stretched into a trilogy. I especially regretted that the initially strong and interesting protagonist lost her direction and inner self. Increasingly the focus zoned in on which boy she'd choose. Granted there were significant ramifications to her choice, but couldn't that have been attached to some other decision of hers? For example, what political allegiance she claimed.

Two recent books that explore similar moral and human dilemmas in richer and more satisfying ways while also sustaining well structured narratives are UNWIND by Neal Shusterman and THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary E. Pearson. Both of these novels have the thrill of action and mystery along with strong characters and story lines.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Film review: The Grocer's Son & Lives of Others

If you liked "The Visitor" and "Station Agent" be sure to see "The Grocer's Son". Although it may not be as complexly satisfying, it has rewards all its own, especially the depiction of and love for rural France and the elderly who have stayed behind in its small towns. Director Éric Guirado prepared by spending 18 months filming portraits of traveling tradesmen and their customers in Corsica, the Pyrenees and the Alps. (I, for one, would love to see that those film portraits.) The story of a prodigal son returning to help care for the family business is a familiar one, but lead Nicolas Cazalé gives a nuanced performance that escapes the mudlin complimented by a strong supporting cast most notably Jeanne Goupil as his mother and Liliane Rovère as the prickly and dry-humored customer with whom he must make peace.

"The Lives of Others" the 2006 debut film by writer director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck starring East German actor Ulrich Mühe is simply one of the best films I've ever seen. A strong storyline, impeccable pacing and cinematography, subtle accumulation of detail and superb acting deliver a suspenseful tale of life in a police/informer state - illustrating how in even the most oppressive societies individuals have free will which they can, and do, use - both for good and for ill. It's a demanding subject and the film ends by takes the easy way out by giving redemption when it would've been more in keeping with the overall tenor of the film (and the reality of East Germany) to show how hard any counter-government action would be even for Stasi employees - themselves closely watched and seldom if ever working alone. As Anna Funder, the author of a book about the Stasi, "...what is more likely to save us from going down the wrong path again is recognising how human beings can be trained and forced into faceless systems of oppression, in which conscience is extinguished." However this point of view is not entirely absent for, as LA Times move critic Kenneth Turan points out this film, "convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all." The Lives of Others proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt and thus lays groundwork for more of such necessary and artistically sublime projects.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Snapshot: Health after a disaster is directly related to health before the disaster

Amanda Ripley points out in her informative blog that anti-social behavior almost never happens after a disaster. "In fact, the opposite is true. People, like all animals, tend to form groups and show each other great courtesy in times of extreme shock and duress. People do this because it is in their interest. There was looting and some sporadic violence after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but the mayhem never rose to a level that justified the amount of coverage. More people likely suffered because of the fear of looting and violence--due to delayed relief and search-and-rescue efforts and unnecessarily hostile encounters with police and armed, frightened civilians--than because of actual looting and violence."

However there are rare cases in which looting and violence can become widespread. Ripley interviewed Enrico Quarantelli, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware about his Theory of Looting which posits that widespread looting only seems to happen when the four following conditions are all present:

  1. Dramatic disparity between rich and poor.
  2. High levels of petty crime and gang activity. ("Gangs are almost always the leaders in any case of mass looting”)
  3. An ineffective and corrupt police force. ("A corrupt and ineffective police force doesn’t scare anyone")
  4. A massive catastrophe.

Ripley observes, "Notice that three of the four conditions are all pre-requisites, present before the actual disaster strikes. Another reminder that the health of a city after a disaster is directly related to the health before the disaster."

Film review: Amereeka

AMEREEKA follows Muna, a single mother who leaves the West Bank for small town Illinois to give her her teenage son Fadi better opportunities and safety from the Israeli occupation. However she soon finds that the USA presents its own challenges: racist school bullies, general anti-Arab sentiment and the only job longtime banker Muna can get being at White Castle. However Muna, like so many immigrant women and mothers before her, is determined to put together a new life and does it with a flair all her own. This debut film, told with a crisp eye for both humor and pathos by writer-director Cherien Dabis, features standout performances by Nisreen Faour (Muna) and Hiam Abbass (recently seen in "The Visitor") as Muna's sister.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Poem: Julie Cadwallader Staub

Who could need more proof than honey—

How the bees with such skill and purpose
enter flower after flower
sing their way home
to create and cap the new honey
just to get through the flowerless winter....

from "Joy" by Julie Cadwallader Staub
Read the rest of the poem at Writer's Almanac

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book review: When Wanderers Cease to Roam

After twenty years of travel Vivian Swift finds a village on Long Island Sound and decides to stay. She brings an attentive eye to, as she says, “Staying Put” as well as weaving her travel memories seamlessly into her new life. Swift's entertaining , thoughtful and always beautiful combination of words and images is to be savored – read a little and then come back to it later. This is a book as unhurried and flavorful as the cups of tea she enjoys. Being a Peace Corps volunteer threads through her later travel experiences in Ireland, France, Tunisia, etc. I like how the author holds her travels in the same time zone of her heart. In other words, the Sahara of her Peace Corps years lives right alongside a Paris cafe of a couple years ago, today's walk in her village, a book she read, a fact she learned, tomorrow's dreams, etc. It’s a rich and multilayered palimpsest of existence – of life.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snapshot: Financial equity-5 point plan

Did you know? 

  • 2/3 mothers are breadwinners
  • Women make up 50% of the paid workforce?

Financial equity-5 point plan:

  1. Stop making unemployment, retirement and other benefits contingent on steady FT work
  2. Don't make flexible hours a barrier to health insurance, and do stop charging women more for health insurance
  3. Guarantee workers paid family & medical leave
  4. Provide high-quality healthcare
  5. Stop taxing women's income unfairly/disproportionately - get rid of: a) flat taxes=payroll taxes for SS & Medicare are flat taxes which means that people w/lower incomes pay higher percentage of income than those with higher incomes (over $106,800) and b) get rid of taxing combined income pushing the lower earner (usually a woman) into a higher tax bracket=second earner penalty

- "Paycheck Feminism" by Karen Kornbluh & Rachel Homer (MS Magazine, fall 2009)

Art notes: Lois Beardslee

Lois Beardslee is Ojibwa. Her art reflects a lifetime spent in northern Michigan, interaction with other tribal members, and the formal study of Native American art history. As a teenager, she was profoundly influenced by the work of Yvonne Walker-Keshick, with whom she worked at the Traverse City Indian Center. Her work incorporates traditional techniques, materials, and images drawn from her knowledge and experience. She gathers pigments for her paints from the earth in northern Michigan and finds design inspiration in ancient pictographs and Woodland Indian legends. She participates in the Great Lakes Indian Artists Association. Her involvement in the Native American Women Artists" project has prompted her to explore the themes of Native American culture, women, and water in her work. In addition to painting, the multi-talented Beardslee also specializes in beadwork and is a superb storyteller. Her presentations to audiences of all ages, tribal and nontribal, are filled with tales of Nanabush and other Woodland Indian figures, as well as personal reminiscences of her childhood. Her stories have recently been collected and recorded on audio cassettes as Leelanau Earth Stories.

Snapshot: Ways to invest in creativity

Investing in Creativity by the Urban Institute found that artists need:

  1. Validation and Recognition
  2. Markets for and Vehicles with which to share/sell art to audiences
  3. Material Support - healthcare, supplies, housing
  4. Training and Professional Development
  5. Communities and Networks
  6. Access to information (e.g., Artist Trust in Seattle, LINC in NYC, 4Culture, Trumain Foundation, etc.)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Snapshot: Ferran Adria & Grace Lin

"Decoding Ferran Adria" by chef Anthony Bourdain looks at Adria's work - a mix of high-tech and fundamental. A chef who loves the most basic of restaurants when he eats out and seeks to evoke memories of flavors and the essence of food while also playing with our senses and expectations of food. Examples of this play include serving a fish that seems raw, but is perfectly cooked; apple cavier; the filling of ravioli but without anything holding it together (looks like an unbroken raw egg yoke); an egg yolk w/the outside carmelized and a tiny topping; a fish dish that you eat while holding a sprig of rosemary (the herb is too strong if added to the dish, but the scent gives just the right amount of "flavor"). So, what would Adria do if his experiments had to be low-tech way. Could it work? If so, what would the results be?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by illustrator and writer Grace Lin delivers a mix of luminous two- and full-color images and elegant text which updates and invigorates classic Chinese characters and themes through fairy tales created for the novel. The main story is of a Chinese girl Minli who sets out to find a way to improve the fortune of her poor parents and village. Her adventure is interwoven with the evolution of her parents as they mourn her absence and the many stories that are told by various characters along the way. The illustrations, while not integral to the narrative as they are in say, The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, are a delight and serve as an effective to draw reluctant readers in and expand the reader's visual knowledge more about China and Chinese culture.