Friday, January 28, 2011

Sunset Park, by Paul Auster

Sunset Park, the latest work by Paul Auster, is a well-crafted story set during the economic crisis of 2008. It interweaves the lives of several characters, many illegally squatting in an abandoned Brooklyn house. The location of the house is an ungentrified area called Sunset Park.

In Sunset Park, the downward economic trend is also a metaphor for the plummeting aspirations and finances of the book's characters. Miles Heller was once an ambitious college student at an Ivy League university. He still possesses the intellectual bent of his father, a literary publisher. But his life is changed irrevokably when he pushes his step-brother into the road during a heated argument. Guilt-ridden, he becomes increasingly morose and angry, finally running away in his junior year and living hand-to-mouth doing odd jobs in different states.

When the book opens, we find him working for a Florida company that clears out repossessed homes. While other employees help themselves to the once-treasured possessions, Miles takes photographs of them. It is as though he is trying to preserve the dignity of those objects as well as their owners.

But just as Miles is a slim, fastidious, and brooding man of 28, his friend, Bing Nathan, is boisterous, large, and somewhat uncouth. He is a foil. Yet, both men are guided by strong moral compasses. It is Bing who has kept in touch with the parents of Miles throughout the years of self-exile. And like Miles, Bing seeks to restore old items that are often tossed away. He owns the Hospital for Broken Things, where he frames pictures and fixes old attic treasures, relics of bygone years.

Miles ultimately leaves Florida and comes back to New York in order to escape arrest for statutory rape. He leaves the love of his life, seventeen year old Pilar Sanchez, hoping to marry her on her eighteenth birthday.

Pilar is an interesting girl, mature beyond her years. Miles tutors her, encouraging her to go to the best colleges. Certainly, she is under-age, but we never get a sense that Miles is doing anything prurient. He is nurturing, although, he does admit that his feelings for her are both paternal and sexual. It is not surprising that she is the age at which his youth ended.

Other people in the book are equally interesting. Mile's father, Morris, is well-drawn as a successful and cerebral man who has followed his son throughout his self-imposed exile. Mile's mother, a Broadway actress who abandoned him as a baby, is surprisingly sympathetic. Auster allows the reader to see her side of things, while understanding the root of Mile's temper and deep-seated anger.

The two women who share the house with Bing and Miles are rather quirky characters. Ellen Bryce is a part-time realtor and artist, coping with her own inner demons. Alice Bergstrom is her friend. She is working on her dissertation. Both women are happy to live rent-free before they move on to the next stage of their lives.

The interplay of all the characters makes this book quite interesting. Although each chapter is written in the third person, Auster's writing allows us to not feel like mere observers. We genuinely care about the characters and their fates.

Auster masterfully explores the theme of choice, and the impact our decisions have on us and those around us. At the same time, he seems to question the notion of free-will, and one wonders how many of our acts are predetermined by our inherent natures. Once again, Paul Auster has written a spellbinding exploration of the human psyche.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands

What can I say about a 140 page (including the index) book that lists isolated, secluded and mostly uninhabited islands around the world? It's wonderful! Delightfully deceptive I would say.

The atlas gives each of the 50 islands 2 pages. One page has a beautifully rendered drawing of the island, the other page has facts and a short story about an island - a sort of snapshot of island events. The 50 islands represent all 5 oceans. The Pacific Ocean has the most islands listed. One is even said to have the remains of Amelia Earhart.

Schalansky has studied both maps and art and design and it shows in this book. The introduction is titled "Paradise is an island. So is hell." and the book shows that this is only too true. Schalansky has a love of maps that started as a young girl. She turned this love into this book. Many of the islands she writes about are uninhabitable, some cannot even be walked on. All are interesting in their own way.

This book is a wonderful piece of escapism to places that seem surreal but are not.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Modern Family

If you were a fan of Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, or The Dick Van Dyke Show, and are currently watching them on re-runs, check out Modern Family.  Watching it makes one realize how times have changed from the era of the 50's and 60's both in acceptance of diversity and in child-rearing styles.

Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) is the patriarch of the family. Now divorced, he is married to the much younger, and very beautiful Colombian woman, Gloria (Sofia Vergara). She brings into the marriage a very precocious son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), whose insights and adult manner endear him to the audience. Jay has two adult children: Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen), married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Ferguson), living with his gay partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). Claire and Phil have a conventional marriage, and have three children. Cameron and Mitchell have adopted a Vietnamese baby girl and are learning to parent together.

What makes this family story work so well is the fine acting and the great dialogue. Sofia Vergara is wonderful as the sexy, hot-tempered wife of the wealthy and staid Jay Pritchett. His dowdiness is countered with Gloria's skin-tight pants and plunging necklines; Jay's steadfast demeanor contrasts to Gloria's emotional outbursts. We empathize with her sense of otherness while laughing at her antics.

Another source of comedy is provided by the character of Phil Dunphy. A realtor, Phil has never won the respect of his successful father-in-law. Moreover, Phil's desire to be liked makes him very human, and he entertains all alike with his boyish ideas and adventures.

Another star of the show is Cameron. Like Phil, Cameron is spontaneous and sensitive. He is the permissive parent, the clown, the emotive partner. His acting is superb. He is a great foil to Mitchell, and the attraction of these opposites is believable.

Taken as a whole, this is a laugh-out-loud program. Unlike other contemporary series, Modern Family highlights the issues inherent in adolescence, parenthood, love in all its forms, and then pokes fun at them. In a world in which we take ourselves ever so seriously, this series helps us look at life in all its glorious absurdity.

Enjoy it this New Year!

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Lost City of Z

Now is a good time to escape to somewhere warmer. So I thought I'd try The Lost City of Z by David Grann. While the book is non-fiction it reads like fiction. Grann, a writer for the The New Yorker becomes intrigued by the mysterious disappearance of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. Fawcett was an explorer extraordinaire. He trekked through the Amazon basin on more than occasion creating maps of an area no white man had ever been in.

Fawcett became interested in the Amazon and the mythical city of Z as a young man. After his obligatory British military service he became fascinated with explorers like David Livingstone. He decided his life would be better spent as a "geography militant" and that the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) would be the best place for him. Taking classes from the RGS Fawcett became even more determined to go exploring. While others were heading to the North Pole, Fawcett headed to the Amazon.

The book details Fawcett's life and expeditions in detail. They start with him as a young man in his thirties. Not really prepared to undertake the explorations, Fawcett's personality was his best asset. Determined and rigidly believing in his Victorian British attitude Fawcett and his groups trekked over the Amazon basin trying to find the city of Z. This city was supposed to hold untold wealth - maybe it was really El Dorado. What Fawcett found was everything but the city.

He found tribes of Indians who had never seen a white man, tribes of Indians who only wanted to kill white men, 20 foot long snakes that could easily eat a man, mosquitoes that could kill you (and frequently did), ants that could eat the flesh off a human and more. The jungle was no place for the physically infirm or the weak of character.

Fawcett's last exploration ended with his disappearance. He had left with his son and his son's friend and a very small party of guides. He was never seen again. Years later Grann becomes bitten by the Fawcett bug. Numerous search parties had gone looking for Fawcett. None found him and very few returned. Grann decides he will go searching for Fawcett and Z without really realizing what he is getting into. Having no previous experience in a jungle he sets off after doing copious amounts of research.

Grann has access to all Fawcett's journal which the RGS possesses. He also has privy to some private diaries that contain some clues. And he also has better equipment and supplies. Grann never finds Fawcett or the city. What he does find is that the Amazon basin is a thriving area with natives still living in it. That there are ancient artifacts which show that large cities thrived there from thousands of years ago. In short that the area is as fascinating as Fawcett claimed it was.

I could not put this book down. Once I got over the "ick" factor ( i.e. bugs burrowing under the skin and moving around so you can see them), I had to finish the book. Grann switches back and forth from his own adventure to Fawcett's. The book is highly annotated, Grann having relied heavily on Fawcett's journals. While this is not a place I would like to vacation in, it is certainly a place I am glad I read about. I highly recommend this book.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Clothes They Stood Up In

Alan Bennett writes book that are small in size but large in life lessons. So goes The Clothes They Stood up In. While at the opera (Cosi Fan Tutte) the Ransome's apartment is burglarized. Everything is taken. EVERYTHING. From the TV to the rugs, even the toilet paper roll is taken. They come home to nothing.

This short (160 pages) story deals with the way the Ransomes react. Mrs. Ransome is normally a quiet person. She doesn't really have an opinion, having lived with her very opinionated husband. But when she realizes that she can completely start over she begins to come out of her shell. The story moves through her not very helpful contact with the police and how she decides to rebuild the apartment furnishings. She does this by shopping first at the local convenience store, which she had never been in. She then graduates to furniture stores and markets relishing in the new experiences. While Mrs. Ransome is off having new experiences, Mr. Ransome is more interested in trying to figure out how he can upgrade his stereo equipment.

Months later the Ransome's find out that their apartment has been recreated down to the smallest detail in a self storage place. After racing to the storage facility and having a surreal conversation with the manager the Ransomes are once again in possession of their belongings.  While Mr. Ransome is thrilled, Mrs Ransome starts to miss her new experiences. A bittersweet ending shows that there is personal growth available even through a horrifying experience.

At times surreal the book is a gem. Wonderfully written, the dialogue is laugh out loud funny in places. I highly recommend this book. And if you need more of Bennett's writing try The Uncommon Reader.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Booklists from your favorite librarians!

Starting next month the Glencoe Public library will be offering a new service to its patrons. Booklists delivered directly to your email account! The librarians will be creating lists such as new fiction, new non fiction, new young adult books and more. The lists will be created using the NextReads program. Most of the lists will be sent out monthly, some speciality lists will be sent less often. All the lists will be available to anyone who subscribes.

You can register for this service when you come into the library to register for the Winter Reading Club. Registration for the Winter Reading Club starts on January 8, 2011. Come to the library and register! If you have any questions please call the library at 847-835-5056.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Keith Richards Tells All!

I can't imagine that anyone could have predicted the runaway success of Keith Richards' autobiography Life, which has spent 9 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  But having read a number of rock star biographies this year (including Ozzy Osbourne and Belinda Carlisle) I can say that this one is definitely a cut above.  Much credit must go to his cowriter James Fox, who captures Richards at his leisurely, storytelling best.

One thing that sets this book apart is that Keith avoids the trap that many rock stars fall into of trying to turn their life story into a moral fable of the temptations of drug use.  Keith is certainly very straightforward about his use of illicit drugs and some of the craziness that happened while under the influence (with many legal confrontations along the way - note: it helps to have friends in high places!).  He goes into great detail about his relationship with Anita Pallenberg, with whom he had a son, and who seems to have gone into darker places with her drug use.  He also presents the mythologized Brian Jones as an example of a musician who succumbed to the temptations of fame while forgetting what got him there in the first place.  Also unique is how Richards covers musical territory in great detail: his influences, his songwriting, his guitar style.

Much of the initial press coverage of this book centered around Richards' harsh words for Mick Jagger.  As he states late in the book, Mick is more of brother than a friend, with all the complexities of family relationships that that entails.  But Richards is actually very complimentary of Jagger through the much of the book, with praise towards his harmonica playing and songwriting skills.  And despite some years that were especially challenging to their relationship, when Mick was trying to go solo and Keith was trying to assert himself within the Stones, they do seem to have mostly reconciled.

If you are looking for a detailed history of the Rolling Stones, this one would not be it.  In fact, Richards seems to prefer to talk about his non-Rolling Stone buddies more than the Stones.  But much of the charm of the book can be attributed to these colorful characters who pop up through the book in Jamaica, Canada, Morocco, etc., many of whom remained part of Richards' entourage throughout his colorful life.  Kudos to Richards and Fox for creating the closest thing to cornering Richards at a party and listening, awestruck, to anecdote after anecdote!

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