Monday, April 27, 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

 Hausfrau is sure to evoke strong reactions. Its publisher, Random House, is extoling it as "a literary 50 Shades of Grey." It  has sold publishing rights in 14 international markets and ordered a third printing.

The book is a modern re-telling of Anna Karenina. In Hausfrau, Anna is an American living in Switzerland with her austere and handsome Swiss husband, mother-in-law, and three young children. Her lack of language skills and her own aloofness contribute to her ongoing sense of alienation. Yet, the main characteristic of our protagonist is her passivity.

As the novel progresses, we realize that Anna lacks all sense of direction. She has no moral core. Adultery, in the form of casual sex, is her escape from boredom and her acquiescence to a need to be desired.

Essbaum is a poet and her novel's language substantiates this. Her characters are well-drawn. Yet the difficulty in loving this book rests in Anna's unlikeability. We learn, through Anna's sessions with her psychoanalist, that she lost both her parents at a critical age. She felt unloved by others who cared for her. This may have contributed to her need to be dominated by men. However, Anna is so self-absorbed and uncaring of others that the reader finds it hard to understand her.

Hausfrau is definitely a well-written book with lots of explicit sex scenes. Anna is a complicated character, the subject of which might ignite heated debate at a book club. As Anna Russell wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "(Hausfrau) is guarenteed to be a hit. Nothing sells better than a large group of people complaining about the content...Now we just want to see what the fuss is about."

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

The book opens on the morning of Lord and Lady Montfort's annual summer ball. Iyntwood, a Downton Abbey-like house is in an uproar. Guests are arriving, supplies being delivered and the family black sheep, Teddy Mallory, Lord Montfort's nephew and ward, who has just been tossed out of Oxford for bad behavior, is on his way home. His removal from Oxford is just another incident in a long list of indiscretions.

The ball moves ahead as planned and everyone is having a good time, including Teddy who is being his usual horrible self. Things take a very bad turn the next morning, however, when the estate's gamekeeper finds a man  hanging from a gibbet in the woods. He turns out to be a family member and the guests are now sequestered at Iyntwood while the police investigate.

This book reads like a Downton Abbey episode as the very proper upper crust try to deal with a family scandal while around them there are more scandals, involving yet more guests and staff.  One murder, a missing guest, secrets and a missing house maid all make for a light mystery read. If you are a Downton Abbey fan this book is for you!  If you like cozy mysteries this book is for you. And if you are looking for a new mystery author, this book is for you!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production by Paul Fischer

Bizarre. It's hard to write about North Korea without using that word. By now, we've heard so much about the cultlike devotion to the late Kim Jong-il (and now his son, Kim Jong-un), dictators whose starving citizens are forced to listen to propaganda pumped through home speakers propped above portraits of the country's leader, that we move to the next overheard bizarre North Korea story without blinking an eye. A Kim Jong-il Production is a recently published book filled with accumulated details that illuminate a strange-but-true tale, one that might be difficult to accept if a reader lacked previous knowledge of North Korea's history. Even knowing quite a bit about the country I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

The stars of the story are Shin Sang-ok, a well-known South Korean filmmaker; Choi Eun-hee, his film star wife; and the aforementioned Kim Jong-il, whose rise to the country's highest post started with his role masterminding the Ministry of Propaganda, which included the country's filmmaking division. Jong-il was a massive film buff who had collected thousands of movies from around the world and kept them in a secure bunker, for his eyes only. When North Korea's economy started to dry up, he decided that exporting motion pictures was a way to bring revenue into the country. This is where the story's weirdness begins.

Jong-il's plan involved kidnapping Sang-ok and Eun-hee, bringing them to North Korea and forcing them make films for the glory of the country. And believe it or not, he succeeded. The book gives us a litany of North Korean kidnappings in the 1970s - their heyday - of which Sang-ok and Eun-hee were but two victims. While Eun-hee found it best to play along, Sang-ok tried multiple escapes, which eventually landed him years in some very harsh prisons. After his "reeducation", Sang-ok decided to play along and make movies for North Korea, a role which gave him unpredecedented freedom and produced movies like North Korea had never been able to create on its own.

This book does a great job providing the history of North Korea and Jong-il and building up suspense towards Sang-ok and Eun-hee's eventual - **spoiler alert** - escape to the West after eight years. Following their getaway, many questioned their account and wondered if they had voluntarily gone to North Korea in order to resurrect careers that had run aground in South Korea, despite much evidence that the kidnapping did indeed happen. While leaving a number of great South Korean films (and even some highly regarded North Korean ones) Sang-ok's post North Korea career was spent in the US creating the likes of the Disney Channel rerun fodder, 3 Ninjas, before he eventually returned  to South Korea.

This book was the essence of readable history and once the story got rolling I found it difficult to put  down until I found out how the couple would make their getaway. Fischer does a great job of telling a story with only a limited number of available resources about their North Korea stay. I also found myself fascinated by Jong-il's quirks, charms and obsessions. If you're looking for a little bit of bizarre (there's that word again) post-Cold War history then this book should definitely be added to your "to-read" list.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

Who's your favorite Beatle? Are you into winky, cutesy Paul? Is John's politicizing where it's at? Or maybe you're a Ringo person...if you're 5 years old. Let's face it though - by any possible means of measure, George was the coolest Beatle. He might not have been the best songwriter of the four but he did write Something, which has been covered by everyone from James Brown to Willie Nelson to Frank Sinatra (who supposedly called it his favorite Lennon-McCartney tune). When Paul was escaping to his farm and John was shuttling between New York and L.A., Harrison purchased the 120-room gothic mansion Friar Park, which included extensive gardens and underground tunnels - UNDERGROUND TUNNELS!!! And while Ringo brought us the Thomas the Tank Engine TV show and McCartney birthed the woeful film Give My Regards to Broad Street, Harrison was responsible for producing Monty Python's greatest film, Life of Brian!

If I haven't convinced that Harrison was the coolest Beatle then you really owe it to yourself to pick up the new biography George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson. If you already love the man then you definitely need to read the book. It's a comprehensive warts-and-all look at "the quiet Beatle" that at 400 pages does not overstay its welcome.

Despite being with the Beatles from the very beginning, George's status as the youngest Beatle seemed to define his relationship with the others. A strong guitarist who was more comfortable playing set parts than improvising, George found himself in one of the most popular bands in the world by 21. At an age when most of us were looking for our first post-college jobs, George was one of the most recognizable people on the planet. As his songwriting progressed, he found it hard to convince the others in the band of his skills - somewhat understandable when he was competing with the likes of Lennon and McCartney to get songs on albums. Many people don't realize that not only was Harrison the first to leave the band, over frustration with the other musicians' dominance (he'd soon return) but he was also the first to release a solo album, with the experimental soundtrack Wonderwall Music.

While Harrison may not have been the musical leader of the band, he was the one who initiated the spiritual quests of the Beatles, leading them on trips to India to meet the Maharishi and meditate. While Ringo had very little interest and John a little bit more, the effect of Indian religion on George lasted his whole life, influencing his outlook on life, death and celebrity. More noticeably to the rest of us it also affected his role in the Beatles music, with exotic sitar colorings bubbling to the top of their songs.

There are many well-documented reasons behind why the Beatles broke up and certainly the release of Harrison's monumental All Things Must Pass (the first triple album in rock) shows that he had more material available than The Beatles could ever handle. The rest of the book follows Harrison through a long career decline, as his limited writing skills became more evident. Following the charity Concert for Bangladesh event and his ill-fated 1974 Dark Horse tour he retreated, as he attempted to reconcile his fame with his desire for peace and quiet. He was able to launch a late career comeback with 1987's Cloud Nine and his Travelling Wilbury's supergroup but without a desire to tour and lacking any massive hits from a number of subdued and sometimes lazily produced albums, the late 1970s and early 1980s remained quiet musically. He claimed many times that he simply wanted to be a guitar player and not a Beatle.

Harrison died a tragically young 58, though arguably his spirituality allowed him to accept his cancer diagnosis as well as a person reasonably could. He had been quoted many times as saying that he saw no difference between life and death as far as the spirit was concerned. Be assured, however, that the book does not paint him to be an angel. The author makes us aware of many of the material world struggles that Harrison dealt with - from drugs and alcohol to interpersonal relationships - and it points out that while having a serene and accepting outlook on life he also had an acidic side.

I really enjoyed this look at Harrison's life. It's a comprehensive look at a private person thrust into celebrity and dealing with all that followed. Even more importantly, despite the author's reservations about the quality of certain Harrison releases, it did get me listening to some of his albums again and appreciating his unique slide guitar sound once again.

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