Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How Starbucks Saved my Life by Michael Gates Gill

The best thing about this book is what I learned about Starbucks. First of all, I LOVE the coffee. Even the decaf tastes like regular. At four-something a cup, I felt a little annoyed at spending so much for a coffee from another big, heartless, soulless corporation. Now, I actually feel good about spending that money. Starbucks is an amazing and wonderful exception in the cold Arctic landscape filled by most big businesses today. Full benefits for part time employees? If they can do it, so can Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world.

That aside, the book was annoying. The constant name dropping was first on the list. Queen Elizabeth? Jackie Kennedy? Ernest Hemingway? Give me a break. Gill is still a pompous ass, no matter what the partners thought of him. I am sure, if JWT (his old employer, the advertising giant J. Walter Thompson) called him up and offered his old job back, he would take it in a minute. I mean advertising? Is there a larger bunch of lying, conniving, slithering snakes anywhere? I am not convinced that after 30 years of that life he could completely turn himself around to a newer, shiner, more sensitive version in only one year.

I do believe in redemption, and I am glad he saw the tragedies he left behind during his climb to the top, but all that came too late for those he crushed on that ascent. I was thinking about Enron when I was reading this, and I doubt, that for even a nanosecond, Ken Lay and all his cronies ever thought, “This scheme will make us millions, but it will hurt a lot of ordinary people if it fails.” I doubt any of the executives at JWT read the book and ever thought, “We should be nicer to our employees.”

Another annoying feature of this book was the numerous grammatical errors.

Last, but not least, and perhaps I am being a bit too cynical here, but it is almost as if Gill saw the opportunity leading to a book. I just wish he had a better editor. 2 stars

--Chiron, 2/27/08

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Gardens of Water by Alan Drew

It always amazes me that after a disaster, such as the earthquake in this novel, religious people thank God and call him merciful for sparing them. Where is the mercy in allowing the earthquake at all? In fact, I would like to ask intelligent design advocates of the intelligence behind hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes. This novel is full of people thanking a merciful God without much thought to the lack of mercy shown to the more than 17,000 people crushed in the terrible 1999 Marmara earthquake and its aftershocks.

At times I was annoyed at the Christians using a disaster as an opportunity to convert people who only want to be left alone. During a conversation between father (Sinan) and his son, Ismael, Sinan asks himself if there is any place we can be left alone. In an interview with the author, he reflects on his visit to Turkey. He arrived four days before the quake, and he seems to chide the Christians for taking advantage of desperate people, yet he places words in the mouth of Marcus, a relief worker, who also tries to convert Ismael, that seems to excuse his behavior, claiming he was only offering hope to the young boy, who was depressed and suffering over all the loss of life around him.

What Drew has done is subtly hint that Christianity is better than Islam because the latter offers no hope. I wonder if this is an example of Christian fiction I have assiduously avoided. I have always been staunchly against missionaries. They have caused enormous damage to cultures, art, artifacts and whole populations over the last 2,000 years. Why missionaries believe they can simply go to a village, or a city, or a foreign country and tell native peoples what they have believed for generations is all wrong, but the missionaries have the correct answer, never ceases to mystify me.

This novel is the third I have read recently in which the characters refer to his or her father as “Baba.” Pashtuns in 20th century Afghanistan, Chinese peasants in the early 19th century, and now Kurds in Turkey in the 1990s.

Gardens is also the third recent read which describes the horrific treatment of women and female children at the hands of males, including fathers and brothers. Ismael and his sister try to break out of the family traditions with an innocent view of the world, life, and love. But this is the ultimate loss that so threatens the Muslim world. If their children turn away from the old ways and the old beliefs, Islam has no future in the eyes of the Muslim fundamentalists. This inability to accept an updating of their beliefs, and acceptance of some modern ways, has stunted growth in the Middle East. These people are refusing to accept the birth pangs of a new way of looking at the world, which the West endured during the Renaissance to throw off the stranglehold the Catholic Church held over Europe in the Middle Ages.

The description of the earthquake is gripping, the exploration of Sinan’s anguish at his losses, are touching, and overall, Alan Drew has written an interesting story, but he is no Orhan Pamuk, the recent Nobel Prize winning author from Turkey. Four stars of five.

--Chiron, 2/24/08

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

All I Did Was Ask by Terry Gross

In the early 70s, when I first discovered NPR, I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of interviews and news reports. When WHYY in Philadelphia, dropped all its music programming and went to a 24-hour talk station, I was disturbed, but only because I had no idea what was coming. The news expanded and stretched both itself and my mind. Thirty some years later I am still an avid fan of NPR, and we are lucky to have a local public radio outlet with a spectacular line-up of programs (KWBU 103.3 FM).

That line up includes Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I first listened to Terry a few days after her arrival in Philly from Buffalo, I believe. A review of her show in The Philadelphia Inquirer was intriguing to say the least. I tuned in, and boy oh boy did she make me mad. They had some call-in segments then, and I wanted to challenge her on several issues. I did some digging (not easy in the days before computers), and consistently found no credible evidence to dispute her guests or her questions. She changed my mind on so many issues that, I am ashamed to say, I had never really thought about or studied. She opened my mind on women’s rights, gay rights, religion, politics, music, and literature. Her show became the focal point of my afternoons. I bought a tape recorder and a clock radio and devised an elaborate plan to tape the shows when I could not listen live. I even had the opportunity to work for her on one of the fundraisers for the show and the station.

On a recent visit to Philadelphia, I called her and talked to her about my transformation, and she invited me on my next visit to come in to the studio and witness a show. Somehow my infrequent short visits have not allowed that to happen, but I still have her number in my wallet. One of these days…

When I saw this book at Books-a-Million, I snatched it up. I skipped some of the interviews (hip-hop artists and a couple of actors I do not like), but there are some real gems: John Updike, Carol Shields, Andre Dubus, Andre Dubus III, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Conan O’Brien, Eric Clapton, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Baldwin.

Terry has a way of bringing out the deepest thoughts of her subjects. I can’t begin to count the number of times a guest has said, “Wow, that’s a great question!” or “Hmmm, I’ve never been asked that before.” The touching interview with the desperately ill Carol Shields, who died about 14 months after the interview, covers her illness and impending death with sensitivity and genuine affection.

Of course, my favorite is the interview with John Updike. It is truly amazing that this writer can speak as poetically and wonderfully as he writes. His discussion of the Rabbit Angstom novels was enlightening, and will drive me back for a third, or maybe it is a fourth read.

I only wish the interview with G. Gordon Liddy was included. I remember him calling her “sweetie,” which didn’t phase Terry at all, but the audience really let him have it for his chauvinistic and condescending manner.

The Introduction by Terry is a fascinating look inside the show and how each segment is put together. If you have never listened to Fresh Air and Terry Gross, you are missing out on an American treasure.
6 stars out of five. --Chiron, 2/18/08

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This novel has been on my TBR list for a long time. My reluctance to pick it up was based on a vague belief that it was depressing, and that lonely young women, full of depression, rejection, and low self-esteem saw it as some sort of bible. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, I am still glad I waited until now to read it. I doubt I could have appreciated it then as much as I do now.

Sylvia Plath was a troubled woman, and, as this autobiographical novel shows, she went through hell to recover her grip on reality, only to lose it under the pressure of writing, teaching, marriage, childbirth, and several physical problems.

The biographical sketch at the end of my edition was particularly enlightening. It pointed out the main parallels between Sylvia’s life and that of Esther Greenwood, heroine of The Bell Jar. The editor also included a selection of drawings by Plath.

I recently watched Sylvia, the Gwyneth Paltrow bio-pic, and I heard her voice narrating the novel. The writing floated, melted, and flowed dreamlike; the change in the style as Esther descends toward her breakdown is chilling and gripping. I could hardly put this down as I got closer and closer to the climax. The most chilling line, because I knew how the story would really end, was on page 241 – only three pages from the end: “How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

A true psychological thriller. Five stars

--Chiron, 2/18/08

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block

This book is part of LibraryThing's Early Review program.

I almost gave up on this book. I almost invoked the “Rule of 50” around page 35. But I didn’t, and I am sure glad I didn’t.

The novel is about a man waiting for his daughter, and a young boy trying to find his mother, stricken with Familial Early Onset Alzheimer’s. Seth and his father know almost nothing of Jaime’s past and her family. Abel, the man waiting for his daughter to come home, is a sad and forlorn character with almost nothing to live for except his memories of his brother Paul, his wife Mae, and the daughter Abel believes he fathered during an affair with Mae.

Block provides us with a history of this peculiar variation of Alzheimer's, how it first appeared as a mutation in England, how it spread around the world, and finally found its way into the lives of Seth and his family. I won’t say any more about the plot, but I will say the medical sections are interesting and well-written, even easy to follow.

The story is populated with lots of interesting characters with all the foibles and failings we easily recognize in ourselves and in those closest to us.

One of the reasons I was going to stop reading was I felt a depressing story coming on, and I wasn’t in the mood. However I began to see the characters moving toward a resolution of their closest hopes, dreams, and desires.

Woven in amongst the stories of Abel and Seth, are fragments of a fairy tale that had been handed down to Seth by his mother, who received them from her mother and so on back through quite a few generations.

This is Block’s debut novel, and I can’t wait for the next one to come along. Five stars.
--Chiron, 2/12/08

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Beowulf A New Translation by Dick Ringler

A colleague loaned me this version of the Old English masterpiece, and, once again, I was disappointed. First came Seamus Heaney’s Celtic interpretation, which found its way into the Norton Anthology. He really rewrote it for a Celtic audience, even beginning the poem with “So!” Not to be outdone, Longman Publishing commissioned a couple of Irishmen to out-Celt Heaney. Yikes! They were ruining this great work! Not only did these translators change the culture, they did away with all the kennings.

Now we have another sanitized version set in, of all places, Denmark. Denmark did not exist in 750 ce when this was most likely composed. Rather the peninsula was called Jutland, which was inhabited by the Jutes, one of the three original tribes that eventually merged with the Angles and the Saxons to become Anglo-Saxons. I guess this is okay for the casual reader, but I am afraid such a translation does not convey the flavor of the original. Imagine watching Kirk Douglas’ version of Ulysses and figuring you now know all about Homer!

Sorry, I guess I am an old fogey about this stuff. I despise modern versions of Beowulf, Shakespeare, or Mozart operas. Don’t get me started on modern versions of Verdi, Puccini, or Rossini. Three stars

--Chiron, 2/7/08

The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee

Ah, a wee bit of a book! This may be the first book I have read that I have not owned in a very long time. I like John McPhee, and I discovered this while doing some research for a paper on his essays.

Amazing how history can be distorted by the victors. I remember being curious about William Wallace after seeing the film, Braveheart. I happened to have two books on Scottish history. One was by a Scot, the other by an English historian. As you can imagine, the former lauded Wallace as a hero, a freedom fighter, and a great soul, while the latter labeled him a terrorist, a thief, and a murderer. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I like McPhee’s style and his subject matter. He always seems to wind around to the outdoors and the people who live in and off it. He has had dozens of essays in The New Yorker, my favorite magazine. That is where I first encountered him. Interesting reading, and this book has some nifty pen and ink drawings. Four stars

-Chiron, 2/7/08

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

As I wrote in "Next UP," I have a serious foot-phobia, and I was not sure I could get through this novel. The writing was lovely and lyrical and sounded exactly the way I imagined Lily would speak.

But I was constantly twisting and turning and fidgeting my feet. I felt the excruciating pain those women must have went through to snare a rich husband. How inhuman! How could mothers possible subject their 6 or 7 year old daughters to the same torture they experienced as young girls? I know, I know, it was the society, and to prosper in that society, all women, who wanted a good match for their daughters, had to force foot-binding those poor children. I guess stiletto heels, make-up and pantyhose are not quite as bad.

The capacity of human beings to inflict pain and suffering on the most vulnerable members of society is an unspeakable tragedy. With a death rate of ten percent, you would think women would rise up and put a stop to that barbarity.

I have always admired Chinese culture -- the calligraphy, the poetry, the porcelain and pottery, the food, of course, but I was not truly aware of this dark side of Chinese history.

What women put themselves through for men! Men truly do not deserve women, and some day, they will wake up and realize what they have done -- just as Snow Flower's husband did when it was too late. Hug a woman, give her a kiss and gentle touch. Remember, as the Chinese proverb says, "Women hold up half the sky." Three-fifths, I think.

--Chiron, 2/7/08