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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bonjour Tristesse

Book Review for Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse

Don’t let the fact that the book is tiny, that it was written by a very young unaccomplished writer in 1955, or the fact that it is French dissuade you. This book is wonderful.

We spend the summer holiday with Cecile, a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood who is caught between the desires of her younger self and those of the woman she is destined to become. Through her eyes we see a glimpse of the beauty of the French seaside and the complexities of her society. Cecile moves toward her abrupt coming of age with resolve and trepidation… she yearns for the simplicity of an imagined perfect family life while at the same time manipulating the adults around her in order to maintain some sense of control.

Cecile’s love hate relationship with first her father’s latest mistress Edna and then later with his fiancĂ© Ann, is really a response to her unorthodox relationship with her father himself. Her fumbling in the matters of love with the older boy Cyril and her loss of her innocence, by her own hand, hallmark the classic heart trauma of a girl becoming a woman.

Cecile is a wonderfully written character. She isn’t always understandable or likable, but she is always engaging. Her metamorphosis is heart breaking and yet wholly unsurprising. Sagan writes with a style that is clear, concise, and reminiscent of Fitzgerald. In fact, had Cecile suddenly taken a trip to West Egg, it would not have seemed out of character.

With its gripping storytelling, it is no wonder that this book became a classic. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Sparrow

Book Review for The Sparrow
Mary Doria Russell

This book was a masterpiece of storytelling.

Weaving together themes of faith, hope, love, adventure, mystery, and exploration, Russel tells the story of a band of pioneers who journey across the galaxy to make first contact with a newly discovered alien species.

Summoned by picking up radio transmits of music, the group is made up of Jesuits, Atheists, and a Jew. But they are more than that… they are a close knit family unit brought together by God, or at the very least by Emilio, the world renowned linguist Jesuit priest.

Not needing anyone’s permission, this group travels via an asteroid in our very near future to find the source of the Alien Singers and perhaps find God along the way.

The story is told on two parallel tracks through Emilio, who has returned to Earth alone, his body and his faith bearing the marks of the violence and horrors that are hard to imagine. As he heals, he slowly tells the story of the fateful mission to his fellow priests. At the same time, Russell uses flashbacks to round out Emilio’s story, to give us background on all the party members, and to bridge the gap of what he can and cannot articulate. The effect is a seamless quilting together of an epic story full of believable characters and profound truths.

Unlike a lot of science fiction, this book focuses more on the characters and their development than technology or setting. The result is that even though there are things like interstellar space travel, the story feels as if it could be happening right now to people you might actually know and better yet, care about. There are aspects of any first contact scenario be it on an alien world or settlers from one country interacting with natives in another. Russel takes the time to gently make socially driven points about the value of language and balance in nature, but these messages are subtle and don't overwhelm the story.

Again, this book is a masterpiece of storytelling... more than any other book I have read this year, I highly recommend The Sparrow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Julie & Julia (novel)

Julie & Julia

This book was fantastic!

Yes, it is about cooking. (Which I can neither understand the allure of nor the necessity for when there are things like delivery Chinese food and microwaves).

Yes, it is about Julia Child (someone I had never –gasp- really heard of).

And yet… I loved this book almost comepletly. Yes, there was one aspect that bugged me, bothered me, turned my avid reading into dull eyed scanning… and I’ll get to that in a second.

First though, the book is about a woman named Julie who decides pretty much on a whim to cook all 500+ recipes from Julia Child’s first cookbook. Wait… it gets better. First off she will do all of these recipes in the span of only one year, and she will blog about it as she goes.

Now if you are doing the math, you will have realized that she is going to be clocking more than one recipe a day. And writing about her adventures… all while maintaining a job and a social life.

Admirable, sure… but it is Julie’s voice…. Her raw realistic sometimes vulgar and hopelessly honest voice that turns this project into something worth reading about, even if you don’t understand her desire to undertake it.

The story is about the food, the blog, the constant dishes… but more than that Julie tells us a story about her world… of a mindless boring drone job, a social group that is acheningly familiar, and the trials and tribulations of an actual marriage. Her story is the story for any woman who has felt trapped and needed to DO SOMETHING in order to find her power, her voice, in the world.

And it is almost without flaw.

There is just this one thing…

As a blogger, Julie wrote about her adventures in the kitchen, being brutal with the truth and her occasional failure. In the book, she does this as well, but she adds in fictionlized vignettes Julia Child’s life. (I know they are fiction, I read the introduction.) This sadly does a few things… it breaks up the narrative flow and distracts from Julie’s story, Julie’s voice. I am not really sure why she felt the need to do this… in my humble opinion they added nothing, no parallel structure, no on-par climatic build, just the occasional pause in the story of Julie for a bit of Julia.

Other than that… the book is wonderfully done. It keeps the audience engaged and laughing as we journey with Julie toward the project’s completion. Reading it, one is almost convinced that cooking can be fun, that cooking can be worth it, that cooking French food (fancy and involved French food like bone marrow sauce) is doable by even us common women.

In a word: the book is fantastic.

(And yes, I am aware a movie based on the book is due out this summer. Look for the review of it as well as a comparison sometime in August.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Surrender All

Book Review for Joni Lamb's Surrender All

When reading any work of non-fiction, one must first determine what the goal of the author is, To entertain? To inform? To Persuade? It is the final option that is the most difficult but it is that goal which Joni Lamb chooses for her book Surrender All.

She attempts to convince you to surrender your all to God.

In order to do this, she lays out what, I am sure she thinks, is a well planned out logical argument. This argument is indeed compelling (if ultimately severely lacking in the area of logic).

She starts off the book with the following questions; Do you believe in God? Do you believe that he has a personal stake in your life? Her argument for surrender basically assumes that you have answered YES to both of these statements… she doesn’t try to convince you that there is a God and she only briefly discounts the belief that God might just not care about you personally being more concerned with other God-like worries.

This flaw in her logic can be easily overlooked however if you are of the target demographic; someone who already believes in God. There’s more to it though… it isn’t enough to believe in God, you must surrender to God or else you run the risk of living a horribly unpleasant life despite your faith.

This is where the true essence and problem of the book lies. She spends the next hundred or so pages giving “examples” of people who either didn’t believe or (and this is key) didn’t believe in God enough to warrant the “good life.’ Many of her stories start off with the “There was this man who believed in god but he hadn’t truly surrendered and thus he was unhappy….”

It’s that same old “You might be Christian, but you aren’t a REAL Christian unless….” This is a syndrome of many churches that people find hypocritical.

And her evidence? Her “proof” that only by surrendering all will you ever find true happiness and peace with God? Nothing but a very long list of anecdotal examples which hardly can be used as any sort of reliable evidence.

She also relies heavily on “post hoc ergo propter hoc” as in “I lost my keys, I prayed, then I found my keys… therefore God is not only real but wanted me to find my keys and only gave them back to me because I prayed.”

This sort of attitude is dangerous and it wasn’t long before the examples of people being healed with prayer started to crop up. Of course, hot on their heels were examples of people who weren’t healed because they lacked the proper amount of faith.

Throw in a few tried and true guaranteed to make the liberal Christians vomit sentiments like rock music has evil subliminal messages and the Enemy causes depression, you need good loud praying to cure you and you have the rest of the book. My personal favorite is the lesson (stated over and over again) that God can heal all things if you have faith… even your abusive meth addicted husband. So stick it out, don’t even think about divorce, and just pray really really hard.

In other words, surrender to blind faith.

Obviously, I am not her target audience. I find her logic trite and untrue. I think she does an actual disservice to the religion of Christianity as a whole by touting this “not quite Christian enough” mentality. I also find her views on healing and domestic violence appalling.

Would this sort of fear mongering guilt inducing series of scary bedtime stories work on a believer? I’m not sure. Her television empire is doing quite nicely, so someone must be buying into this.

However the fact that her book has been out since last year and her PR firm contacted me to do a review of it makes me think that sales must not be as good as they would like… Seriously, seeking out a blogger such as myself (with my dozens of gay rights and sexually progressive posts) to write about your book for what could quite possibly be the opposite of your demographic, speaks of either server scraping of the bottom of the barrel or a potentially brilliant conversion method.

Joni’s voice is clear in the book, she writes in a wonderful style that is both conversational and genuine. Her message, however, needs work

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In The Cut

In The Cut

Yes, it’s an “older” movie, but it had been languishing long enough in the bottom of my Netflix queue, so last night I watched it instead of doing one of the other dozen or so things I should have been doing.

Here’s my take;

The movie is surprising in all the not typical ways. Billed as a thriller / mystery with a steamy sexual relationship as its center, what we have is a movie where the twist is pretty much expected, the sex is steamy but stunted and short lived, and the best parts are the hard to decipher stylistic additions that change this from a odd thriller to an artsy thriller.

First, the sex (because I know that’s one of the biggest draws). The sex is hot, good, a bit raw, and there are some elements that are dazzling in how real it all seems. Meg Ryan is naked y’all and she isn’t the bubbly pixie from her rom/com days… this is an adult woman with “twisted” sexual appetites. (Twisted is in quotes because despite what the movie seems to want to tell you, women masturbating, enjoying oral, and being voyeuristic isn’t really that uncommon or that twisted.)

Next: The twist. (No, I won’t give it away). The best part about this movie is the dysfunctional relationships that seemed to be nothing but jagged pieces of the puzzle of life, trying to press against each other hard enough to fit. Which is perfectly apt. Yeah, you can sort of figure out the twist… but the surprising thing is that you spend more time thinking about all the other little things that build into the twist and therefore the end is still satisfying. There are layers of symbolism and when you start asking yourself if random shots hold deeper meanings or clues, you know the movie has done its job.

A few other things:
The symbolism and the use of the color red in this movie is great.
If you have read “To the Lighthouse” you will get the film on a whole deeper level.
The use of cinematographic cut aways and New York as a character itself, is done very well.
Kevin Bacon is very good as crazy manic.

Be prepared, the language is harsh, the sex graphic (even if it doesn’t last long), and the murder scenes are grisly. In short, the movie is precisely what you expect a twisted thriller / sexy suspense movie to be.


Post Script: … it was based on a book! Another addition to the great and mighty “must read” list…..