Sunday, December 26, 2010

#62 Essays of E.B. White

Each of these essays displays White’s trademark precision of language and thought. They remain timely. With the recent passage of the START agreement, in which the U.S. and Russia commit to reducing their cache of nuclear weapons, one hopes that White’s assertion that “A disarmament arrangement backed by controls and inspection… is simply a veiled invitation to more and greater secrecy” is incorrect, though White’s reasoning is so clear and methodical, one cannot help thinking that perhaps it is not.

His writing makes the reader feel as though he is simply having a conversation with a friend who knows of what he speaks. It is in the reader’s interest to listen.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why Harry Potter Makes Me Want To Be British

On July 15th, Harry Potter will pop back onto his broomstick and fly into movie theatres in over thirty countries. All over the world, people will gasp, cheer and even shed tears when their favorite boy wizard crosses wands with his adversaries one last time. What is it about this particular fantasy that has made us pour so much of our hearts and minds into its books and films, and has made sure that the Sun never sets on J.K. Rowling’s empire?

Sure, who doesn’t fancy they could do magic? It would be great to simply say “Hooverus Totalis” and have your floors vacuumed in an instant. But for me, there’s another appeal.

Harry Potter makes me want to be British. “British-ness” in itself seems to be a main character in the Potter franchise, and these films give such a whopping great dose of it, that I find myself saying things like, “I’m just going to nip to the loo,” for weeks after I’ve seen one.

I know, America is # 1 and Britain’s a wet little island with soggy weather and bland food. But there must be something they have that we lack… Diction, perhaps? Perfectly round, bouncing Oh’s and lilting Ahs’s, popping briskly, crisply out, while our American vowels drag out nasally, bleating their last like lambs being carted off for slaughter.

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Harry Potter became so popular just when the world decided it wasn’t so keen on the United States telling everyone else what to do anymore. Maybe there’s a certain nostalgia for a time when someone other than those barbarous American Muggles was there to rubbish things up. Certainly, the word “America” is conspicuously absent from the books and movies.

So much the better. As Americans, we are forbidden from ever being the underdog, but Harry Potter can defeat Lord Voldemort in every book and every movie, and still seem like he has the odds stacked against him every time. He shrugs off his triumphs over evil, and makes self-effacing statements like “Harry Potter’s a bit of a tosser, really.” Harry Potter can make winning look like losing, and it takes being British to pull that off.

The veteran actors in the films embody this particularly British wit and restraint. Alan Rickman as Snape is an actor so wickedly precise he can make a quiet word communicate resignation, spite, and confirmed desperation all at once. Maggie Smith as McGonagall admonishes her young charges with a bemused look and a drolly articulated phrase.

Okay, Great Britain. You gave us constitutional government and the language of Shakespeare, we gave you freedom from Fascism and ketchup on your fries—I mean chips. You gave us Harry Potter, and in return, I agree to walk around speaking in my most terrible British accent for a week after I watch the next movie. I think that’s an even exchange. Pip, pip, Cheerio!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

#61 Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Willie Loman can’t get a break. All his life he’s been traveling the country, shilling items that are as useless as he feels. Then Willie loses his job, the thing that defined him and gave him purpose. His son Biff has inherited Willie’s lack of ambition, but this has not always been so. Something caused Biff to lose all interest in making something of himself. Was it because Willie always taught Biff that hard work is unnecessary, that being well-liked is enough? Partly. But there is another reason, one that only Willie and Biff know. Willie does not carry it to his grave, but this secret helps to send him there.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

#60 Boy by Roald Dahl

One of the most beautifully crafted memoirs I have ever read. Roald Dahl, that genius of children’s literature, enchants us with true tales of his eventful childhood. There was the time he and three friends hid a dead mouse in the gobstoppers jar of Mrs. Pratchett’s candy shop, and the time when, at 9 years old, he had his adenoids cut out from his throat without anesthesia (or even warning). Some of these events one can hardly believe, but one can hardly ignore Dahl’s strident assertion at the beginning of the book that all of them are true. These stories will make you laugh out loud and pause in quiet wonder.

Monday, June 28, 2010

#59 Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

This book is like a 1960s Sex and the City, with more drugs, albeit just as much sex. Anne, our heroine, moves from a small New England town to New York City. where her good looks land her a job at an advertising agency. There, she meets ad-exec and notorious ladies man, Lyon Burke. Anne falls for him immediately, but he proves to be just as elusive as “Mr. Big.” Anne’s sometime friend Neely (who is just plain evil) reaches fame’s mountaintops, in Broadway and Hollywood, before sliding down the slopes of drug abuse and treachery. Jennifer, the blond bombshell, hits the rock bottom of the valley of the dolls.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

#58 Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

If you can’t be with your one true love, here’s some advice: marry her sister! That way you can be close to the one you love, at least on holidays and family occasions, anyway. Sounds like an asinine idea, but Pedro, Tita De La Garza’s true love, doesn’t think so. Tita’s mother, Mama Elena, refuses to let Pedro and Tita marry, so Pedro marries Tita’s older sister, Rosaura, instead. Tita, a gifted cook, prepares the wedding feast and her food magically causes everyone to feel her pain. Pedro soon realizes that marrying Rosaura instead of Tita was like substituting water for sumptuous chocolate in the mystical recipe for true love.

Monday, June 21, 2010

#57 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, Bengali emigrants, name their baby son “Gogol” when a letter from Ashima’s grandmother containing a Bengali name for the baby never arrives. It is the family tradition to have a family elder name new children, and the missing letter symbolizes the inner search that the child must undertake to find his own identity as a Bengali-American. Gogol Ganguli, a.k.a. Nikil, a.k.a. Nick, changes his name in order to shake off his Bengali culture, but soon discovers that changing one’s name does not change one’s heritage or history. Seems like a rose isn’t the only thing that by any other name would still remain the same.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

#56 The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Forget what you know about Baloo the Bear. He’s not the “Bear Necessities” singing, Disneyfied bear you think you know. In Kipling’s book, Baloo knows it’s a jungle out there and makes sure Mowgli the Man Cub knows it too. If it weren’t for Baloo and the black panther, Bagheera, Mowgli would have been the wolves’ dinner when he was but a little baby. Instead he is allowed into the pack on Baloo’s word and Bagheera’s offering. Mowgli lives by Jungle Law and becomes a friend to all animals, except Shere Khan the Tiger. Mowgli seems easy prey to Shere Khan, but Baloo has taught Mowgli the bare necessities of survival.

#55 The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“Nothing gold can stay” –Not true. Ponyboy Curtis stays golden, even after his best friend Johnny’s run in with the Socs puts Ponyboy in an unbelievable situation. The whole thing was an accident. The Socs had beaten Johnny so badly, that he’d cried like a baby when his gang of Greaser friends found him. When the Socs cornered him and Ponyboy again, Johnny’s instincts told him there was only one thing he could do. He buried his switchblade deep into the Soc whose ringed fingers had torn his face apart. But Frost is partially right. Ponyboy stays golden, even after Johnny is gone. Johnny couldn’t stay, but he was golden too.

Monday, March 29, 2010

#54 The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah

This seems like the perfect mother daughter relationship: Lavish trips to the hair salon, sharing designer clothes, daughter selling drugs to her strung-out, junkie mother…Wait a minute, what? Yes, Winter Santiaga sells drugs to her own mother. What choice does she have? Winter must hustle to stay alive now that her drug lord father is in jail and her “MTV Cribs”-like existence has come to an abrupt end. Anyway, her mother is sure to understand. After all, Momma has taught Winter that she has to be a “bad b**ch”. That means having the most expensive clothes, nails done, hair did and a man with deep pockets. Like mother, like daughter.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

#53 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Who says you can’t learn anything from reading comic books? This graphic novel about life in pre and post-revolutionary Iran reads like an Iran For Dummies book with much better pictures. Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her childhood amid the communist revolt and the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. This book not only gives us a better understanding of Iranian politics, we also see beyond these large-scale matters to the daily battles Marji fights for freedom. Wearing the veil becomes chief among these struggles. It’s not a question of whether to wear it, but of how to wear it and whether showing some hair will get her arrested and whipped.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

#52 Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary’s Lullabye:


In my Belly,

You’ll soon be Reigning over Hell-y.

When the Water Breaks,

I shall give Birth,

To One who’ll bring

Darkness and Fire to Earth.

Talk about an expectant mother’s worst nightmare. Rosemary and Guy move into their dream apartment in New York City. There are rumors of strange happenings in the building, but who could say no to low rent and so much space? Their elderly neighbors, the Castevets, become intrusively involved in the young couple’s life, but seem harmless. Then, a proffered chocolate mousse cake from these neighbors leads to a nightmarish coupling, and to nine months of painful gestation and a horrifying discovery.

#51 Animal Farm by George Orwell

At first, the animal rebellion went splendidly. In an instant, the animals had overpowered the farmer and his men and freed themselves from servitude, exploitation and constant hunger. The boars, Napoleon and Snowball, make themselves the Boss Hogs of the new democracy, but when Napoleon chases Snowball off the farm, and the other animals find themselves working day and night with little food to eat. Napoleon starts to dress in the ousted farmer’s clothes, and the other animals see him as a real Man in Pig’s clothing, realizing too late that the rebellion was nothing but a change in regime. Wolves aren’t the only animals that like to play dress up.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

#50 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Babies havin’ babies? Not on Nanny’s watch. At least, not out of wedlock. That’s why she insisted that her 16 year old grand daughter, Janie, get married right away. Nearly twenty-five years and two marriages later, Janie returns to her home after having left with Tea Cake, a man twenty years her junior. Janie is alone and the playa’ hatin’ neighbors want to know why. As she tells her story to her friend, Phoeby, we learn not only about the tragedy involving Tea Cake, but about the events that have helped Janie live by what seems to be her motto: “To thine own self, be true." In other words, “Do you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

#49 M.Butterfly by David Henry Hwang

This play is based on a true story, believe it or not. For how could Rene Gallimard not have known that Song Liling, the woman he loved for twenty years was really a man? Song creates the fantasy of the perfect woman: She is beautiful, seductive and wants only to fulfill her man’s every desire. Or so Gallimard thinks. Song is a spy for the Chinese government and Gallimard’s position as a French diplomat is the target of her “womanly wiles”. Gallimard claims to have had no idea that his painted lady was no butterfly at all. Not so hard to believe; every fool in love is eager to be deceived.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#48 A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Gene returns to the Devon School, site of the angst of his teenage years. He is older, but the school looks younger, varnished and gleaming. Equally varnished are Gene’s memories of Phineas, his best friend while at the Devon School. Finny, an adroit charmer and natural athlete, makes life look easy. He is everything Gene is not. When an accident involving Gene, a high tree, and a questionably clumsy Phineas puts an end to his physical prowess, Gene must ask himself a hard question: Did he cause Finny’s fall on purpose? Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between a friend and a frenemy until you’re falling out of the tree.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

#47 Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

It’s sort of like the show Seinfeld, but with more songs and pine trees. Pooh is the Jerry of the book, as he always breaks even and never comes to any harm. He and his friends, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, and Roo also spend the day visiting each other’s apartments (that is, tree houses) and muddling through the absurdities that fill their lives. But this book, unlike that show, is not about nothing. It is about friendship, imagination and the wonder of childhood. Pooh could give Jerry a few lessons on dealing with life’s little Heffalumps with a “hummy” song, a smackerel of “hunny,” and a quiet stroll though the woods.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

#46 The Iliad by Homer

There are names for women like Helen of Troy, and by the tenth year of a most bloody and unceasing war, she has called herself every one. Every day, men have their limbs slashed, eyes gouged, throats cut, skulls smashed and corpses defiled, all because of her. The war starts when she, already married to Menalaus of Sparta, ran away with Paris of Troy. The Greeks launch a thousand ships to get her back. When the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus get involved, it quickly turns into a battle between the mortal and immortal: an unfair match. All this fuss over one woman. She’s beautiful, yes, but can she cook?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

#45 The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Long before Maury Povich came on the scene to reveal paternity, people just had to take the mother’s word for it. The problem in this novel is that Hester Prynne isn’t talking. Her husband cannot be the father of her child, because he is thought to be two years at the bottom of the sea. Rather than leave the confines of her strict Puritan town, she stays and is forced to wear the letter “A”, for “adultery”, upon her chest. So who is the father? One who speaks eloquently about the Heavenly Father, and who suffers unimaginably in hypocrisy and shame. His secret letter “A” is the agony within his heart.