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Monday, August 29, 2011

ORANI: My Father's Village

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BIG WIG: A Little History of Hair

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

NOTHING DAUNTED: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Aug 4: Pathfinder: Blazing a New Wilderness Trail in Modern America

by Ron Strickland A review by Barney Mann

Ron Strickland is the father of the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail. He is a latter-day trailblazer, author and the paterfamilias of the nation's newest national scenic trail.

Pathfinder is Strickland's eighth book, and for a zealot -- being "focused" alone doesn't drag a wild-dream mountain trail into reality -- Strickland is more than a passable scrivener. Pathfinder interlaces tales of the trail's founding with steep ascents and descents to match the Pacific Northwest Trail's jutting terrain together with a potpourri of Northwest outback characters, other trail "bad boys" like himself, love in the outdoors (nee sex), backpacking tips and a vision of hiking's future.

Pathfinder is like a snowmelt freshet broken free of Strickland's hard-won trail, a 180-degree turnabout from his seven previous efforts -- five collections of oral histories, one anthology and a 1-pound-plus trail guidebook. Here, Strickland lets his own voice loose at last.

In 1970, 27-old Strickland conceived the idea of the Pacific Northwest Trail, a continuous path from Glacier National Park in Montana to the Pacific Ocean. But after 10 years, the trail received a death sentence. A congressional study concluded "it is overwhelmingly evident ... the trail ... is neither feasible nor desirable." Strickland and his Pacific Northwest Trail went underground and fervent volunteers hoisted axes and pulaskis to make the trail an on-the-ground reality. On March 30, 2009, recognition caught up to reality, and the Pacific Northwest Trail became a congressionally designated National Scenic Trail.

A decade ago, Backpacker magazine branded Strickland a "pulpit-pounding evangelist," but in Pathfinder Strickland is all rosy-cheeked uncle, joshing, cajoling and entertaining, repeatedly poking fun at himself. A Strickland pratfall opens the book. At age 7, a jelly-sandwich-toting Strickland won entrance into his first tent. Heaven. The "canvas hut practically sang of the great outdoors." Then his sandwich plopped, jelly side down. Song over. Long before becoming a trail founder, Strickland was a pup tent reject. "Scram, creep."

Sixty years and 23 chapters later, yet again in a tent with food, Strickland recounted that as the temperature plummeted, his new wife Christine wolfed down a slumgullion dinner. When finished, "she looked expectantly at me as her breath danced in the headlamp's beam. 'What's next?' she purred." She wasn't talking dinner. Strickland proceeds, but here I'll let the tent flaps discreetly close.

Slumgullion: a watery stew. It's Strickland's favorite dish. Occasionally, as in navigating the newly minted Pacific Northwest Trail, you may feel lost, but on the whole, Pathfinder is funny, poignant and unsparing in candor. Entering at "Scram, creep" and exiting at a sultry, "What's next?," Pathfinder portrays a kaleidoscope view of a modern trailblazer's life.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review-a-Day for Fri, Jul 29: The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

by Steve Wick A review by Richard J. Evans

William L. Shirer, born in 1904, was one of the twentieth century's great reporters. He witnessed many of the key events of the 1930s in Europe at first hand and wrote and broadcast about them in a graphic and accessible style, making their complexities comprehensible to his readers and listeners back in the United States. He saw the Nuremberg rally of the Nazi Party in 1934, Hitler's announcement of the German march into the Rhineland in 1936, the German takeover of Austria in 1938, and the invasion of Poland in September, 1939. He was with the German armies as they conquered France in 1940. In between, he reported on Nazi rule in Germany, and was one of the first foreigners to discover the Nazis' mass murder of more than a hundred thousand mentally ill and handicapped Germans in the gas chambers set up in mental hospitals by teams whose expertise was later used in the extermination camps to kill far larger numbers of Jews.

Shirer was shocked and disgusted by the Nazis -- by their aggression, their hysteria, and above all their anti-Semitism. He did what he could behind the scenes to help Jews, at one point renting an apartment in Berlin whose Jewish owners had fled the country, and wiring the rent to them despite the illegality of such actions. Shirer did not disguise his hatred of the regime. As a neutral American, he could stay on in Germany after the outbreak of war in Europe, but the Gestapo became increasingly suspicious of his endless ferreting around for real news -- and of his steadfast refusal to become a tool of Nazi propaganda by just seeing what the government and its agencies wanted him to see. Thus in September 1940 he left.

Shirer's reporting was not always congenial to his bosses in America, and in this book Steve Wick makes excellent use of Shirer's letters and papers to chronicle his often fraught relationships with them. Shirer was fired successively by the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst Universal News service before finding a longer-term job at CBS news; after the war, he was forced out of CBS too, a liberal victim of McCarthyism. Deprived of his living as a reporter, he turned to writing books, succeeding triumphantly with The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, his best-selling history of Nazi Germany, which sold a million copies in hardback and is still the most widely read book on the subject.

Yet his effort was heavily criticized at the time by experts on Nazi Germany, and rightly so. Its main strength -- Shirer's closeness to the events that he was describing -- was also its main weakness. It focused too heavily on political and military history and paid too little attention to other aspects of the history of the Third Reich. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was not abreast of academic research even when it was published in the 1960s, and it is hopelessly out of date now. For all his critical acumen, Shirer seems in the end to have been taken in by Nazi propaganda that portrayed the regime as the fulfillment of long-held German dreams. He mixed with Nazi bigwigs to get information, but he did not make any effort to contact representatives -- inside or outside Germany -- of the millions of people, notably in the working-class districts of Germany's great cities and the industrial areas of the Ruhr, who disliked most of what Hitler was doing and had vehemently opposed the Nazis before they came to power. Of course, it would have been very dangerous to have done this, but others (notably the British consul in Hamburg) did so; and because of his skewed sources of information, Shirer rushed to sweeping conclusions about 'the German character' that were embarrassing to read even in the 1960s, let alone today.

These cliches are present even in the Berlin Diary, which Shirer published at the end of the war. But it is a far better book than The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, owing to its greater immediacy. A genuine diary, it reported at the time much of what Shirer was unable to reveal publicly about life in Nazi Germany. The story of how he smuggled it out of Germany -- in the bottom of a valise, underneath officially stamped documents, after convincing the Gestapo to give the valise a seal of approval so it would not be opened by customs officials -- is one of the best and most exciting that Wick tells. A seasoned journalist, Wick knows how to tell a good story, and for long stretches his book reads like a novel. This is not, as he admits, an academic work of history, but still a good deal of careful research has gone into it, and the book has much of interest to say about the life of a foreign correspondent in the war-torn Europe of the 1930s and early 1940s.

But even journalists have to get their facts right, and it is a pity that Wick has not taken more trouble to read up on the historical background of the times he is writing about. His book is full of errors. Wick thinks that the hyperinflation that hit Germany in 1923 continued afterwards and led to a huge increase in the membership of the Nazi Party (it did not, and the Nazi Party virtually collapsed between 1923 and 1927); he misdates the April 7, 1933 law banning Jews from the civil service to a year later; he thinks the concentration camps were 'teeming' with opponents of the Nazis in the mid-1930s, whereas they held fewer than four thousand of them (at that time it was the state prisons that were used for repression); he does not seem to know that Martha Dodd, daughter of the American ambassador in Berlin, was a Soviet agent whose many affairs, including -- apparently -- one with the head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels (misidentified in the book), may well have served a political purpose; nor is he aware of the fact that only Jewish men were arrested in the Kristalnacht pogrom of 1938. He also repeats the myth that Polish cavalry charged German tanks during the invasion of 1939.

All this is a pity, because as an account of Shirer's life and work in Germany this is an excellent book. Yet it cannot be used as a guide to the times Shirer lived through. Wick has missed the opportunity to assess the accuracy of Shirer's reporting. He is too uncritical of Shirer's cliche-ridden opinions on the Germans. And while one can understand why he confined himself to writing just about Shirer as a foreign correspondent, his very cursory treatment of the McCarthy years and Shirer's life as an author leaves the reader unsatisfied. The reader may end up crying out for the full biography that this great American journalist deserves.

Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich at War.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sun, Jul 24: Northwest Corner

by John Burnham Schwartz A review by Sarah Weinman

What best characterizes a John Burnham Schwartz novel is a quote from Reservation Road, the 1998 novel that made his reputation (and was made into a far lesser film): "There are heroes, and there are the rest of us. There comes a time when you just let go the ghost of the better person you might have been." With vivid prose and boundless empathy, Schwartz digs deep into the psyches of his all-too-flawed characters, whether they are struggling to define true love (Claire Marvel), grappling with the constraints of Japanese monarchy (The Commoner) or, as in Reservation Road, caught in a spiral of guilt, grief and revenge stemming from a car accident that kills a 10-year-old boy on a deserted Connecticut road.

Those worlds are so self-contained, novel by novel, that it seems a surprise for Schwartz to return, in his new novel Northwest Corner, to the same cast of players from Reservation Road. But the passage of 12 years allows him to skew perspectives and shift points of view to reveal, even more penetratingly, how that single, terrible incident from long ago still hangs over the Arno and Learner families and has made them more distant, fractured and scattered -- just as a new, perspective-altering event emerges that may bring them all back together.

When Northwest Corner opens, Dwight Arno is several years removed from serving time in prison for the hit-and-run that killed young Josh Learner, and living a quiet, unassuming life in a Southern California suburb. His son Sam, now 22, is a baseball star at UConn with seemingly boundless potential, until the moment he isn't: a drunken brawl puts another athlete in the hospital and has Sam coming to grips with the violence within him. "The glimpse of his own nature that abruptly comes at him," Schwartz writes, "is a mental sucker punch."

With similar impulsiveness, Sam shows up at his father's doorstep, the first time they've seen each other in 12 years. The shock of that meeting comes through in Dwight's vaguely nonsensical opening gambit: "You left the door unlocked." And from that moment on, as Sam's legal troubles mount, as his mother, Ruth, now divorced from Dwight and a cancer survivor, asserts her own place in the story, and as another reckoning with the Learners looms in the distance, the Arno family's existential reality -- in which there is "nothing to say, but things get said anyway" -- shifts from unbearable pain to despair and, finally, redemption.

The power of Northwest Corner, as its geographical center moves from Connecticut to California and back again, is in the way it asks the hardest questions of human experience with subtle grace. Schwartz doesn't overplay or underplay; instead, he cedes the stage to his characters, be they the Arnos; the now-18-year-old Emma Learner, who is navigating the tricky intersection of intellectual maturity and emotional stuntedness; or Penny, a literature prof who wants to be Dwight's new love interest but senses a chasm deeper than she can fathom.

Their individual stories nest within a larger story of unresolved guilt, grief's aftermath and the struggle to find the light after years of living in darkness. But it's not exclusively a family's journey that Schwartz is trying to illuminate. Society delights in subjecting its shamed public figures to withering condemnation, then bestowing on them a feel-good shot of redemption. With quiet command, the author suggests a far less cathartic, more complicated reality -- that these damaged lives will forever be lived in the limbo between the two. It's the devastating endnote to one of the most emotionally commanding novels of the year.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sun, Jul 31: The Last Werewolf

by Glen Duncan A review by Jessica Ferri

For Jake Marlowe, the last werewolf on Earth in this rollicking novel by Glen Duncan, the difference between werewolves and vampires is simple:

The vampire gets immortality, immense physical strength, hypnotic ability, the power of flight, psychic grandeur and emotional depth. The werewolf gets dyslexia and a permanent erection.
It's true that werewolves often pale in comparison. Vampires are paragons of romance and refinement, werewolves are embodiments of horror (An American Werewolf in London), camp (Teen Wolf) or, most recently, unintentionally hilarious sexual frustration (the Twilight movies). Unlike Twilight's sputtering Jacob, Jake is an unstoppable stud, and there's reason for his myriad conquests -- relationships are just too dangerous. Upon turning wolf in 1842, he murdered and ate his beloved wife, Arabella.

Though Jake has spent the past 200 years looking for a book that would explain the origins of wolfdom to him, he has run out of steam and interest. The FBI of paranormal activity, the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP), is on the hunt, determined to put a silver bullet in him and end the threat of werewolves forever. Jake is ready to throw in the towel, but a series of unfortunate events occur in which he is forced to fight his would-be killers. And as if the threat of WOCOP weren't enough, a group of vampires would like to use his blood as sunscreen.

The Last Werewolf is a steamy combination of James Bond and Stephenie Meyer's blockbuster neck-biting sagas. Instead of the unrelieved sexual tension of typical young adult paranormal romance, we get the action and overt sexuality of 007. Like Bond, Jake has sworn off romance because of the demise of his first love, which, of course, makes romance his Achilles' heel. Enter Talulla, a striking brunette he is magnetically drawn to at the airport. Jake describes her in a smirking reference to none other than Lolita: "Talulla, light of my life, fire of my loins." The bad news for Jake but good news for the reader is, she feels the connection, too.

Glen Duncan is the author of several novels, most notably I, Lucifer, in which the Devil is given a chance to live a human life as a struggling writer. Duncan's demons hark back to the classic tortured immortal seeking redemption. Like Dracula, Jake has acquired refined tastes over his very long life. "I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God, and in the United States when Wall Street reduced the American dream to a broken suitcase and a worn-out shoe." During a stint under house arrest, Jake entertains himself with "a 1607 Dutch-German edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses." And violent scenes are coupled with Jake's ruminations on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. He'd make a fine dinner guest -- if you weren't the meal.

The rest of Duncan's supporting cast is also delightful: the hunter Granier and his albino sidekick, Ellis; the cougar Jacqueline Delon; and Cloquet, a fey henchman with a heart of gold. The cinematic sweep of the novel is undeniable -- it's easy to picture the scruffy Hugh Jackman or Gerard Butler throwing back Jake's scotch and smoking his Camels. If the summer months have you aching for something addictive and fun, pick up The Last Werewolf. Paranormal romance was never just the domain of chaste teens with Robert Pattinson posters on their walls. We once again have a well-written novel for adults to prove it. This Is NPR
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Friday, August 19, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sun, Aug 7: Bright's Passage

by Josh Ritter A review by Alice Gregory

When 35-year-old singer-songwriter Josh Ritter was in college at Oberlin in the mid-90s, he created his own major: "American History Through Narrative Folk Music." It was there, in pastoral Ohio, that he recorded his first album. Fifteen years later, he's writing not just songs but books, too, and whatever preoccupations were at play in that college thesis are still at work today. Bright's Passage, Ritter's debut novel, reads like a protracted folk song and features many of the form's perennial motifs: Biblical names, blazing fires, ghosts in white lace, a beatific baby.

It's 1920, Henry Bright has recently returned from the war in France, and he's brought home more than just haunted memories. An angel has followed him across the Atlantic and back to rural West Virginia, where it has taken up residence in Henry's horse. The neighing medium gives Henry hellish advice, which he always follows but not without some belabored bickering. Upon the angel's instructions, Henry kidnaps Rachel -- a young woman he's known since his log cabin boyhood -- and marries her; their son, Henry is assured, will be the Future King of Heaven. When Rachel dies in childbirth, the angel tells Henry to burn down the house and run away with the infant, who he is to feed a steady diet of goat's milk. The inferno spreads across the state, and Henry is left to escape both the flames and Rachel's avenging father -- a savage colonel with two oafish sons who serve as his informal infantrymen.

Like the crooning lyricist he is, Ritter makes sure to exaggerate the mythical qualities of the already allegorical story -- Grieving Veteran Protects Holy Baby from Fire and Brimstone! Henry Bright is our only morally ambiguous character; everyone he encounters is plainly good or evil. Though he's always dynamic -- riding horses, tending to animals, feeding the baby -- Henry betrays little in the way of complex interiority. He misses his wife and is fiercely protective of his son, but we aren't ever really given access to his non-primal thoughts -- he speaks either in problem solving, plot-advancing sentences or gnomic proclamations.

Ritter compensates for the limits in his characters' mental life with lush, painterly descriptions of their surroundings. Ugly images are often described beautifully: skinned rabbits "lay like enormous overripe strawberries in the middle of the garden" and the horse's "baleful gaze and consumptive ribs ... made it look like some moss-covered mule wandered in from a fairy tale." At other times, though, Ritter's language seems to aspire to a McCarthy-esque grit and grotesquerie, a pared-down sort of scriptural prose, but these attempts misfire when he invariably meanders into almost unforgivably purple prose.

Ritter does a commendable job at detailing the devastating circumstances that propel Henry Bright to action, but the insistence upon constant occult intervention undoes a lot of the book's naturalistic success. Prophesizing livestock is a tall order, especially when the beast's powers are treated with such solemnity. The novel's composition, with its temporal jumps and oft-recursive sub-narratives, shares structural similarities with popular music. And though the hook doesn't come in until quite late -- about a third of the way through -- Bright's Passage does, finally, delivery a dulcet melody.

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Review-a-Day for Wed, Jul 27: Centuries of June

by Keith Donohue A review by Andrew Cleary

In the opening scene of Keith Donohue's novel Centuries of June, we see the bloody collision of the narrator's head against the bathroom floor. "In that instant," Jack says, "the blood became a secondary concern to the hole in the back of my head." When Jack rises from the bathroom floor, his head wound already healing, he returns to his bedroom to find eight unfamiliar women in his bed, any of whom may have delivered the knock to his noggin. To help sort out this mystery, a man appears who may or may not be Jack's long-departed father, though he also bears a likeness to playwright Samuel Beckett.

With every clock in the house stopped at the same early-morning moment, Jack wanders through a bemused fog, struggling to remember how he came to his present predicament. In between stretches of clock checking, Jack repairs to the bathroom, where he is visited one-by-one by the women in his bed. Each of them, ravishing and ravaging, harbors an ancient grudge against Jack, who is unable, we are reminded more than once, to remember who each is or how she arrived in his bed.

To jog his memory, each woman takes her turn recounting her history, and here Donohue's novel exults in languorous sensuality. The recursive mystery of Jack's death recedes before the brazenness of each woman's story. Bawdy and erudite, their tales range deep into history and swirl with sorcery. Dolly, a pre-Columbian Tlingit girl, marries a shape-shifting bear; Alice, a housewife in colonial Salem, may indeed practice the witchcraft she is accused of. Each tale is united by a plot of a wronged woman and a delight in the textural beauty of language. Long Lane Long's story of 17th-century Bermudan colonists scatters "tho"s and "whene'er"s wherever it can, and Flo Worth's tale of the California Gold Rush glisters with varmints and jackanapes.

In an important sense, then, Centuries of June is a romp, and though Jack stumbles through it addled with incomprehension, the humor of its suspended animation echoes indeed Beckett's dark comedy; likewise, the fanciful tales, happy violence, and sensuous, twining language recall the gaiety of Tristram Shandy's endless diversions, and that earlier novel's happy, delaying struggle with death's specter. Unfortunately, Jack seems too slow to keep up with the tales and their allusions. In each interlude between tales he wanders through his house, wondering the same questions about what time it must be, where the cat may have gone, and why, once more, did he find himself brained and dying on the bathroom floor?

Meanwhile, the eternal moment of Jack's morning exerts a captivating pull that trivializes the mere mystery of his death. With each tale through the centuries, the moment is stretched to its limits with infectious brio. Jack comes up with his own modest solution to the mystery, but by then it's too late for him to join us in treasuring the insistent, spellbinding tales of his visitors.

This review was originally published by Rain Taxi.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review-a-Day for Tue, Aug 2: Tourist in Hell (Phoenix Poets)

by Eleanor Wilner A review by Christina Cook

So, your black roller bags are packed, your Tartarean, I mean tartan, ribbons tied to their handles so as to readily identify your own from all the other black roller bags on the airport luggage belt to Hell. You've double-checked for your passport and Air Hades tickets. You're ready to go. And halfway into Eleanor Wilner's seventh collection of poetry, Tourist in Hell, you find yourself at one of the most memorable stops on the trip. "Encounter in the Local Pub" opens in a pub that is not only in a foreign land, but also a foreign time, as signaled in part by the sixteenth-century "lanthorn" and reference to a play written by the fairly well-known playwright of that era:

As he looked up from his glass, its quickly melting ice,
into the bisected glowing demonic eyes of the goat,
he sensed that something fundamental had shifted,

or was done. As if, after a life of enchantment, he
had awakened, like Bottom, wearing the ears of an ass,
and the only light was a lanthorn, an ersatz moon.

-- p. 66

Strong, surprising images such as these abound throughout Wilner's book. In any other collection, "bisected glowing demonic" goat eyes might seem a little far-fetched. But in Wilner's masterful care, they push us just short of the limits of suspended disbelief, where we stop in awe of what has moved us there. Naming the book Tourist in Hell certainly goes a long way toward laying the framework for no-holds-barred images. Moreover, things are not as they seem in this collection, and the poet employs a number of elegant techniques to keep us right along with her, never losing a traveling companion. One such technique is to concretize the abstract, as she does, for example, later on in the same poem:
his thoughts only a sagging bundle of loose ends,
and the heart a naked animal in search of a pelt,
that once fell for every Large Meaning it could

wrap itself in, as organs are packed in ice for transit
from one ending to the next, an afterlife of parts --

-- pp. 66-67

These metaphors are right on. I, for one, know exactly how it feels to have thoughts that are "a sagging bundle of loose ends" and am not ashamed to admit that my heart has often been "a naked animal in search of a pelt."

Another technique this passage illustrates is Wilner's use of line breaks to hook the reader into the next line, the next stanza, the next poem, keeping us traveling right by her side as she tours the tropical land of eternal damnation. The heart "that once fell for every Large Meaning it could" sounds like one that sits in the pub promiscuously trolling for tall dark and handsome meanings. But read on to the next line, and the meaning of the sentence changes: the heart "that once fell for every Large Meaning it could / wrap itself in, as organs are packed in ice for transit." This is no big heart blazoned with an "A." Rather, it is a small animal in need of protection and sustenance.

Such powerful, meaning-twisting line breaks can also be found at other scenic stops in Hell, such as in the poem, "Site Visit":

(...)above on His throne of clouds

sits Majesty in burnished robes, below
the fires roast the burning flesh of those
who must be guilty of what was done

to them, agonies it took genius to describe --
didn't we understand that the punishment fits
the crime? -- though the damned were from a distant

time: we had to search the footnotes for their names.
Hell is the dungeon where God's shadow falls,
cast by the monumental, obdurate cliff

-- pp. 20-21

More than a line break, the emphatic stanza break between "who must be guilty of what was done // to them" is nothing short of brilliant, in terms of its collective use of word choice, word arrangement, line break, and sentence structure. The sentence is our Virgil, in this case guiding us into deeper questioning of the standard beliefs about "sinners," which constitutes the object of the sentence. "The burning flesh of those" leaves off with a line break which invites us to finish the sentence in the expected way: The burning flesh of those who sinned. As the sentence moves into the next line, however, it invites us to question this traditional judgment: the choice of "must" in "who must be guilty" is far from a judgmental "who is guilty," and the semantic arrangement of "what was done," does not assert the blame that "what they did" would. When the sentence then continues onto the next line with "to them," the shade of doubt grows into a shadow as large as God's indisputably Miltonic "obdurate cliff." The question that arises is: done to them by whom? The answer: by God himself. The sentence releases increasingly more doubt into the reader's received ideas about sin as it literally snakes its way down from line to line.

Shadows show up elsewhere throughout the trip, as one might expect in Hell, and Wilner conveys her vision of them in ways that continue to alter common perceptions, as God's shadow does in "Site Visit." For example, see how she retells the story of Jesus in "Magnificat":

When he had suckled there, he began
to grow: first, he was an infant in her arms,
but soon, drinking and drinking at the sweet
milk she could not keep from filling her,

soon he was
huge, towering above her, the landscape,
his shadow stealing the color from the fields,
even the flowers going gray. And they came
like ants, one behind the next, to worship
him -- huge as he was, and hungry; it was
his hunger they admired most of all.

The day came when they had nothing left
to offer him, having denuded themselves
of all in order to enlarge him, in whose
shadow they dreamed of light: and that
is when the thought began to move, small
at first, a whisper, then a buzz, and finally,
it broke out into words, so loud they thought
it must be prophecy: they would kill him,
and all they had lost in his name would return,
renewed and fresh with the dew of morning.

-- pp. 26-27

It would take several pages to fully explicate the poem excerpted here, and almost as many to tease apart the layers of the excerpt alone. Indeed, many of Wilner's poems are as dense in meaning as they are powerful in imagery. However, we may graze the meaning of the poem by pointing to the way she retells the common touch points of the life of Jesus from an entirely different perspective, from his time at Mary's breast through to his crucifixion. Just as God casts a shadow in "Site Visit," Jesus casts a shadow in the beginning of this poem, only to be replaced by an equally menacing shadow by the poem's end:
And who are we to speak, as if the world
were our diorama -- its little figures moved
by hidden gears, precious in miniature, tin soldiers,
spears the size of pins, perfect replicas, history
under glass, dusty, old fashioned, a curiosity
that no one any longer wants to see,
excited as they are by the new giant, who feeds
on air, grows daily on radios waves, in cyberspace,
who sows darkness like a desert storm,
who blows like a wind through the Boardrooms,
who touches the hills, and they smoke.

-- p. 27

Wilner uses the same Biblical language to continue the human story that began with Jesus. In our increasingly secularized society, there is still a huge shadow that looms over us: our own. Just as Jesus' worshippers "came like ants," earlier in the poem, "we... speak, as if the world / were our diorama," waging war as if our fellow humans were no more than "tin solders," living in a world where the "Boardroom" has become our god. Whereas Jesus grew huge from feeding at Mary's breast, "the new giant" is eerily far less human, feeding "on air... on radio waves, in cyberspace."

The above quote's reference to "desert storm" is not accidental, and brings up the corollary theme of war as a human-orchestrated hell that runs through the collection. The first stanza of the poem "Back Then, We Called It 'The War'" discreetly catalogs several wars in history, from ancient times through the Cold War:

And though, since that time, I have read many books,
have followed the smoke trail of countless thoughts
rising from the burning libraries;
though I have inquired in the ruins of many cities,
in the writing on the fallen walls,
in the blank stares of skulls in the killing fields,
in places hidden and open:
nevertheless, I do not understand.
-- p. 22
Wilner maximizes the impact of her references to specific wars by pluralizing them. Thus, while "burning libraries" will bring to mind the Alexandrian War, "fallen walls" the Cold War, and "killing fields" the Cambodian genocide which followed the Vietnam War, using plural nouns highlights the fact that these are far from isolated events in history. She further maximizes the impact of these horrors by framing them inside her mind, opening the poem with "And though, since that time, I have read many books... nevertheless, I do not understand." This framework sets up the speaker's internalization of these utterly nonsensical horrors, and through it, our own internalization of them. As a result, this poem is emotionally and intellectually demanding, as are many others in the collection. Indeed, midway through the book, the poem "High Noon" situates war as being directly inside us:
The soul is not so clean and white
as Kleenex; as old Faust dramatized,
it can be sold for a dram of power,

it wars within, and good
struggles with not-so-good, or vice
versa, the soul's creatures unsure

about what's natural in selection:

-- p. 41

One would hope that a moral imperative against murder places human instinct above the law of natural selection which guides animal instinct, but the war within the human soul is muddy, as the above quote indicates -- both in terms of being dirty ("not so clean and white") and unsure ("not so [black] and white"). Later in the poem, we see a place where "the sun is forever at noon, no shadows / intrude." In the absence of a higher power whose shadow attempts to delineate right from wrong, such as God's or Jesus' or the Boardroom's, our souls are left to find a moral equilibrium on their own.

This is a difficult truth to unearth on a short trip to Hell. However, the closing poem in the collection leaves us with hope, though not certainty, that such equilibrium may be arrived at. In "Tracking," the speaker postulates a place deep in the ocean where

...the giant Alba swims, ellipsis
of the deep, enormity, unseen, except on the sonar's

screen, bright shadow of leviathan or a merlin trick, for
at such a depth, such crushing pressures -- it could not
live -- and yet. The transitive exists, swimming the fissures.

-- p. 100

The poem continues through to these closing stanzas:
...while the great
Alba, scarcely a glimmer against the gloom,
swam on, its jaw wide, ingesting darkness like krill,
until it had swallowed all but its own glowing self,

and, tired of the conceit, shed its tons of matter,
rose in time to see first-light ignite the waves,
back in the blue delight of dawn, its ravishing until.

-- p. 100

The shadow cast by this huge peaceful being is "bright," and as the gorgeous course of language unfolds in these stanzas, we see its glow literally consume the darkness and the shadows we saw on our quite stunning tour of Hell. It certainly will give us something to think about while we unpack the charred remains of our luggage.

Christina Cook's work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Prairie Schooner, The Dos Passos Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Harpur Palate, Packingtown Review, and The Bitter Oleander. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a contributing editor at Inertia. Also a contributing editor of Cerise Press, she teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.

This review was originally published in Cerise Press.

Click here to subscribe Cerise Press, an international online journal based in the United States and France, builds cross-cultural bridges by featuring artists and writers in English and translations, with an emphasis on French and Francophone works.

Co-founded by Sally Molini, Karen Rigby, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain in 2009, Cerise Press hopes to serve as a gathering force where imagination, insight, and conversation express the evolving and shifting forms of human experience.

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The Spring 2011, Vol. 2 Issue 6 of Cerise Press features Smoking, Chongqing, a photograph by Steven Benson.


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Monday, August 15, 2011

Review-a-Day for Tue, Jul 26: Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution

by Serena Mayeri A review by Serena Mayeri

You've been in that room. We all have. The room that had the air sucked out of it because someone among the feminists present noted that their differences were not being addressed sufficiently, if at all. No conversation screeches to a halt as quickly as when someone raises the issue of difference, whether it's gender identity, class, ethnicity or religion -- but especially when it's racial. For generations, feminists have struggled with these "Ain't I a woman?" intermoments, bracing themselves for reactions that can range from hostility, guilt and defensiveness to responsibility and alliance building.

Many believe that feminism has benefited over the years from such uncomfortable but productive moments -- the hard questions, the unresponsiveness, the denials, the meaningful engagements. Others say the charge that feminism reflects only the aspirations of privileged, straight white women is unfair and has caused irreparable harm to the feminist political movement. Still others wonder what the fuss is about, saying debates over difference are a natural by-product of a diverse movement.

Mayeri's Reasoning from Race is designed to facilitate these discussions by showing how the pursuit of racial justice affected the legal strategies of the women's rights and social-justice movements of the 1960s and '70s. To illustrate the interconnections, she describes the impact of key figures in the civil rights movement, including voting-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and Anna Pauline "Pauli" Murray, who, as an idealistic student at Howard University Law School in the 1940s, coined the phrase "Jane Crow" to describe the impact of segregation on black women in the South.

While serving on the 1961-1963 President's Commission on the Status of Women, Murray outlined a legal strategy for challenging sex discrimination by states. "In civil rights advocacy she found both an effective strategic model and a compelling source of moral legitimacy for the feminist legal battles of her time," Mayeri writes. Murray's thinking drove the legal strategy of the new National Organization for Women -- one of its founders, she cowrote its statement of purpose with Betty Friedan.

Although Mayeri suggests but does not examine Murray's class privilege within the black community, she does explore the impact of Murray's personal life on her activism. Murray struggled with her gender and sexual identity, was the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest and was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. The breadth of her experience likely affected her tactics for challenging the social constructions of race, class, sex and sexuality.

Mayeri, who teaches law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that racial politics' impact on the women's movement was not a coincidence of timing but rather the inevitable result of ideas and individuals colliding at key moments in history. Her carefully crafted reconciliation of racial justice with women's rights offers a template for incorporating race into ongoing feminist debate rather than letting such conversations end in painful silence.

Pamela D. Bridgewater is a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law. She blogs at and hosts

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Aug 1: Trilogy of Resistance

by Antonio Negri A review by Justin Maxwell

The three plays within Trilogy of Resistance are very much plays of the dialectic -- like Waiting for Godot but without the road. Or the tree. Or the radish. That is, they do almost nothing with the stage, and yet these director's theater-style scripts are goldmines of potentialty. In fact, in the director's Afterword, Barbara Nicolier talks about staging Antonio Negri's Swarm with only one actress in 2004, and then staging it with a cast of sixty-nine the following year. So, how does one stage a Socratic dialog about modern socialism? However they want. Unfortunately, Trilogy of Resistance is a book, not a performance.

The characters here often speak in political slogans (although they are good slogans), and with translator Timothy S. Murphy subtitling his introduction "Pedagogy of the Multitude," the reader is duly, if unintentionally, warned of what is to come. These plays are so steeped in political ideology that the usual translator's introduction becomes a scholarly primer on Negri's philosophical program, frequently referencing Deluze, Guattari, Brecht, and a handful of scholars. Of course, one can skip the introduction, as the plays' subtitles also set up the Brechtian "Lehrstucke or 'learning plays'" they are.

The body of the collection begins with Swarm: Didactics of the Militant, wherein a single, anonymous Man and a quasi-classical Chorus debate the nature of revolutionary violence. Interestingly, the dramatic structure comes not from a character changing over time but from the ideology growing into progressively more nuanced iterations. Ideology itself is the protagonist here. As the Chorus says, "The dialog with the past can and does recognize what is living." If only the dialog of the plays didn't feel so lifeless trying to do it. The script is very much the author's internal debate, with the Man acting as the younger, more-militant manifestation of Negri's ideology, while the Chorus plays counterpoint, interrogating that ideology.

In the next play, The Bent Man: Didactics of the Rebel, the collection shifts the discussion from the nature of militant action to militancy and passive resistance, and the fundamental exploitation of capitalism is conflated with the fundamental destruction of war. In this work, a different anonymous Man passively resists a draft into the Italian Fascist army by feigning a severe back injury. He resists in this fashion, with much suffering, until the Italian capitulation. But fast upon his freedom, he risks and loses his life in the act of killing a host of re-grouping Nazis. Here we hear a single protagonist whose notion of resistance changes over time. But this vision changes in a way that seems to have Negri saying that violent resistance can somehow be peaceful -- contrary to, let's say, Gandhi. As this play's Man says, in the midst of one of the many monologs these plays are made of, "Why can defending life be transformed into imposing war? There is no choice. The fascists are the ones who impose it on us." And without choice, no characters. Without characters, no real discussion. Without discussion, no real debate. Without debate, no real dialectic.

In the final play of the collection, Cithaeron: Didactics of Exodus, there is the first hint of thematically conscious staging with the overt use of technical design elements. Like much postmodern and contemporary theatre, this is a very inventive re-imagining of a Classical Greek work, in this case the Bacchae by Euripides. Starting the script with a strong, clear moment of meta-theater narrated by anonymous voices, makes clear that this play will also be a lecture, disguised as a dialog, hoping to be theatre. It's Negri's most overtly theatrical of the three shows in the collection, and the most emotional. By being so directly tied to an ancient text, it gives the struggles of the characters an eternal quality that matches nicely with the themes otherwise lectured to the audience in these plays. While this approach is well within the stylistic range of Brechtian epic theatre, we're pulled out of the emotional reaction that could have propelled the author's valuable ideas.

Negri is a powerful intellectual, but on the stage he is a shoemaker without a last. Others cover this same intellectual terrain in artistically more successful ways. After all, what value do staged lessons have in a world where the uneducated avoid both the artistic and the educational? Consequently, these scripts fall prey to the bourgeois impulses they seek to subvert. Over the course of three plays the characters progress away from being objects that overtly serve the dialectic, but they never get far enough away to serve the dialog. These are shows that turn theatrical space into the type of empty-vessel pedagogy that Negri's ideological ally Paulo Friere overthrows in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As Freire says, in a slightly different context, "dialog is an existential necessity." These are oppressive scripts that want to free us, but can't unless the staging helps the script carry the labor of language.

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Review-a-Day for Sat, Jul 30: Methodist Hatchet

by Ken Babstock A review by Jill Owens

Methodist Hatchet, Ken Babstock's fourth book of poetry, is extraordinary. Babstock is one of Canada's premier poets, and, if you've never read him before (as I hadn't), this new collection of poems will astonish, challenge, and rattle you. His language is dense, knotted, intense; his lines are breathtakingly impressive soundscapes. In subject and image, his poems are an uncanny blend of the timeless and antiquated with the hyper-contemporary (references to the latter include Hoarders, "Cincinnati divorcees spilling/ out of leopard print," the Tasty Chicken House, and This American Life). Babstock is a gorgeous, disturbing, funny, bleak poet, and I hope this book introduces him to a much larger audience in America.

The poems are definitely secular -- in the title poem, Babstock describes "having// lapsed since, if that's sayable, like/ falling off porch steps into a hedge." But there's a kind of grace -- not redemption, but perhaps the dubious grace of acuity -- that pervades. He has an occasional sort of awed and reverent fascination with "the grim sight of a motherboard/ re-purposed as a Frisbee," the "gnarled bulge of a years-old scar/ midway up," or "disarticulated/ feet washing ashore in the Nike carapaces/ like hermit crabs adjusting to habitat loss." (As he also says, "Like the gulls,/ you can smell it, and know there's detritus/ afloat worth thieving.") But there is no real difference between those bleaker images and the more usual marvel of the underwater world in "Bathynaut":

...It's all clown fish

at x leagues, near-nerveless bioluminescent
tubes, their eyes on stalks,
jaws afflicted with
cartoonish mandibular gigantism.

These are not the easiest poems to read, and it's difficult to read very many in one sitting. (Babstock may be one of Billy Collins's polar opposites.) But there's a youthfulness, an almost quirky spitefulness in Babstock's tone which is incredibly refreshing, and his lines are so forceful, so effortful -- every syllable is a strike. He wrenches language into beauty. Lines like "...I'd become evening,/ the illogic and armour of liquor" and stanzas like this one:
...a woman stood pressing her kids' heads
to her hip as if waiting for glue to dry,
her bloated luggage stonehenged on my verge
of charred lawn...
remind us of what such effort can achieve. spacer

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review-a-Day for Mon, Jul 25: Walking the Dog's Shadow (A. Poulin, Jr. New Poets of America)

by Deborah Brown A review by Scott F. Parker

In his foreword to Walking the Dog's Shadow, Tony Hoagland writes that the poems of Deborah Brown's debut collection "make thinking look easy." As this assessment and the title itself suggest, these poems are full of ideas; they pursue not so much things as the impressions things have left on the speaker in a lifetime full of memories.

Brown's speaker is mature and wise, fully stocked with experiences to recount and reconsider. These remembrances and reflections lead to abstraction, as in "Proof": "Where 'duck' meant / a domesticated aquatic, not a sniper's bullet about to deafen / your ear. When did the innocent part of the country become one / with the rest of the violent world?" But proof is always secondary to experience, and abstraction must be earned; once earned, it might grant one the privilege to view history from a remove, as when the speaker discusses "racism's latest masquerade / in the flag."

Of course, the mind's impulse to create stories ("Narro, narrare, drifts overhead"; "I read how the brain is structured / to make us believe, or want to") and to compress information for meaning means details are squeezed from memory. Sometimes those details are withheld, as in "Don't Ask," when soldiers "knew what could be said after dinner sixty-five years later, / stories scrubbed clean of blood and pain," leading the speaker to wonder, "How do you know what you've left out of any story you tell?"

Brown's poems are sharply attuned to absence: things missing, words unspoken. Many of the recurring images here focus on what's not present: in the title poem the speaker doesn't walk a dog but a dog's shadow, in another poem the moon "plans to move off course," has been driven "away from home," and has deserted the sky. The attention to absence/presence is summed up neatly in "On Not Knowing Your Father": "I am trying to imagine the pain of a phantom / limb, but the pain I imagine is a phantom, too."

Little in this world is real, and what is might be made unreal at any moment: "how could there / be a whole and happy life...when we have no idea when / antimatter might say enough's enough and take over / and turn us all into -- nots?" The appeal to physics reappears in "The Graviton," where we discover just how fragile our existence is:

It's bad enough
not being able to find good fish and chips,
or true love, or an immigration policy
everyone agrees on. But the graviton
has to exist, since everything else exists,
more or less, so the argument goes.
And so, we infer, we must stick with what is real. These are big, empirical poems that tell us to pay close attention. The book's section titles are an instruction set for how to read the poems: "Don't Ask"; "Listen"; "Read Between the Lines." Brown's speaker hovers around the familiar, and if you ask you will already be looking in the wrong direction and miss the turn toward the unfamiliar. Instead, listen to everything she says -- and to everything she doesn't say. It's only in learning to pay attention to what's here and what's not that we can go along with the wisdom of the speaker: "In the middle / of the night, the sky lowers towards me. / It has a mind of its own, / but no secrets from anyone listening." Click here to subscribe

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review-a-Day for Fri, Aug 5: No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf

by Carolyn Burke A review by David Hajdu

Daffy Duck, plotting giddily to out-maneuver Bugs Bunny, takes a crowbar to the signs announcing "Duck Season Open" in the establishing scene of Chuck Jones's great Looney Tunes cartoon Duck! Rabbit, Duck! Our cue to the futility of the scheme, the detail that makes Daffy's cluelessness apparent, is the fact that, as he works, he casually hums Edith Piaf's Le Vie en Rose. Already in 1953, just a few years after Piaf wrote the lyrics, the song inextricably associated with her was a cartoon joke to American ears. In the five decades to follow, Piaf and her music still have much the same status here. In fact, time has only hardened the image of Edith Piaf, the dark little sparrow talk-singing songs about the fragility of life, as a cliche of brittle French insouciance. To this day in this country, anyone with a fond appreciation for Piaf's work can express that taste only at risk of being taken for a strange duck.

Piaf admirers of almost every feather would be gratified to read Carolyn Burke's serious and mildly revisionist biography. Burke, the author of equally fine studies of the photographer Lee Miller and the polymorphic modernist Mina Loy, has treated Piaf's life and work with the uninflated candor, unpretentious intelligence, and creative rigor worthy of her subject. She has researched both Piaf and her music thoroughly, processing volumes of letters, documents, contemporary accounts, and previous books to provide an account of Piaf's career that is vivid in its details and persuasive in the arguments Burke builds from those details. The Piaf whom Burke presents is at first familiar but ultimately surprising: a diligent songwriter and profoundly original performer whose voracious appetite for men and kicks fueled, rather than depleted, her art. The fans of Piaf sure to be unsettled by Burke's account are the many still attached to the longstanding image of her as a tragicomic martyr of excess, a Gallic cross between Judy Garland and Charlie Parker.

That was the first Piaf I knew about -- or thought I knew about, thanks to one of my roommates at NYU in the 1970s -- and I resisted the caricatured idol of Existential Ennui at the same time I hunted the punk scene for idols of fatalism and decay whom I could call my own. Holding my nose to Edith Piaf, I bowed to Patti Smith, without realizing that Smith was doing Piaf with a New York accent. Nor did I realize how radical Piaf was in her time and place: she sang bluntly, without gloss, about the bleakness of the street life she knew first-hand in Pigalle. I didn't realize that Piaf was singing not just in French, but also in the language of punks, early rockers, and the jazz and blues singers before them.

As Burke points out in one of her book's many small but telling observations, Piaf sang specifically with the titi accent of the lower classes, rather than the proper Parisian accent employed almost exclusively by singers and actors before Piaf. The sound of her voice, to French listeners in the 1930s, when Piaf began making records, was as potent a social statement in her sphere as the proudly African-American textures of Louis Armstrong's singing were in America just a few years earlier. Her whole style of performance -- untutored, a street style, plain-spoken not only in its plainness but in its suggestion of speech as well as singing -- was non-traditional, anti-theatrical: in sum, anti-bourgeois.

The school of song that Piaf helped establish as a movement, "la chanson realiste," was a kind of musical social realism. Burke does an efficient job of situating this tradition in French cultural history, showing how the songs sung by Piaf presented candid, sometimes satirical portrayals of working-class life that "formed a counter-myth to bourgeois celebrations of the city," then pervasive in popular music on both sides of the Atlantic. America had the blues; the French had Piaf.

Virgil Thompson, in a review of Piaf for the New York Herald Tribune, which Burke quotes, measured Piaf's art by the degree of its artlessness. "She is a great artist," Thompson wrote, "because she gives you a clear vision of the scene or subject she is depicting, with a minimum injection of personality." Yet, as Burke explains, Piaf's music drew much of its power from its verisimilitude, and its effect of genuineness was reliant on Piaf's projection of personality. The issue is really not how much, but rather what kind, of personality she injected into her music, and what she brought to it, in tons, was the personality (or, more accurately, the persona) of a life-battered little sage.

"Most of her songs ... seemed to come straight out of her life," Burke writes, reminding us of Piaf's essential role in the transformation of popular singing from its pre-modernist history as an interpretive art to an essentially modernist art of personal expression -- or persona-expression. As I finished reading No Regrets, I wished only that Burke had provided more insight into Piaf's inner life, the person beneath the persona of non-personality. Piaf, in her two memoirs (My Life and The Wheel of Fortune, both still readily available in English translation), cast herself as undyingly romantic and obedient to fate, laying claim to an impassivity that doesn't quite gel with her infamous impenitence. With most of the witnesses to Piaf's life gone now, we will never know more than we get from Burke, and I think it is much to her credit that she resists making unfounded inferences from yellowed-page gossip that is now impossible to verify or to dispute. C'est la biographie.

David Hajdu is music critic for the New Republic.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review-a-Day for Sat, Aug 6: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Vintage)

by Tom Bissell A review by Nathan Weatherford

Tom Bissell has played a lot of video games over the course of his life. Luckily, this obsession has clearly not hurt his writing or sense of humor. Throughout Extra Lives, Bissell ably intertwines intellectual questions and uproarious anecdotes from his experiences playing video games and his interactions with those who make them. The result is an in-depth look at the struggles that go into both developing and playing these games (which are taking up more and more of our leisure time -- and income), as seen through the eyes of someone who has an appropriately uneasy relationship with his own particular version of this obsession.

While Bissell makes it clear that he has been playing video games since childhood, all of these essays deal specifically with games that have come out in the last 10 to 15 years. Video games have obviously made giant evolutionary leaps from the days of playing Donkey Kong in the arcade, and, indeed, many of Bissell's musings on the subject would not have been imaginable at the outset of the video-gaming era. What was once a potentially frustrating and challenging pastime -- whose main requirements were an ability to memorize patterns and be quick on the joystick -- has now become capable of transporting us to massive worlds, enveloping us in gripping storylines, and scaring us as much as (or more than) any horror film. In Bissell's mind, there's no question that video games have become their own art form. But, what this particular art form does that no film, book, or painting can do is still up for debate, as is how best to navigate the various conceptual pitfalls specific to the form.

One struggle at the heart of modern video game development that I found quite fascinating is the tug-of-war between narrative and ludonarrative. The narrative in video games is the overarching plot that guides the player through the game, usually dispensed through cut scenes in modern games. The ludonarrative is the part of the story that is created through the player's own gameplay. Here's the conundrum: give the game too much narrative, and the player will lose interest quickly, since they didn't buy the video game to watch a movie that they have absolutely no control over; but, at the opposite end, with too much ludonarrative, it's impossible to maintain any coherent dramatic arc or emotional investment in characters. And if this balance wasn't enough to contend with, there's also the possibility of the narrative and ludonarrative being in direct conflict with each other.

Bissell mentions an essay by Clint Hocking (current creative director at LucasArts and former creative director for Ubisoft Montreal) in which Hocking coins the term "ludonarrative dissonance" in reference to the video game Bioshock. In Hocking's opinion, Bioshock's gameplay promotes self-interest above all else (i.e. siphoning life out of innocent characters to make your own character that much stronger in the game, enabling you to progress through the game that much more easily), but its narrative constantly presents selflessness as the guiding theme of the story. Thus, as the game's character, you are compelled to act selflessly in the narrative, regardless of how selfishly you act in the ludonarrative that you're creating as you play -- a basic aesthetic hypocrisy that constantly distracts from the world of the game, and a hypocrisy that not only doesn't but can't exist in books or films. My respect for the careful art of video game development increased exponentially after learning about these and myriad other constraints inherent to the field.

But Extra Lives contains a great deal more than philosophical ruminations about video games (and I promise that Bissell explains ludonarrative much more effectively and hilariously than I have here). Bissell has conversations with some of the best video game developers in the field, tells stories about his personal experiences losing himself in games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3, and has constant internal arguments about whether or not the extraordinary number of hours he's dedicated to these and many other games over the years have been worth it -- and if not, why he keeps feeling compelled to lose himself in them time and again.

Both a highly informative survey of the modern video game world and a refreshingly honest look at one man's trials and tribulations with the medium, Extra Lives is a thoroughly engaging read, one that inveterate gamers would do well to put their controllers down for -- and one that could occasion newcomers to pick up those controllers for the first time.


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Monday, August 8, 2011

Review-a-Day for Wed, Aug 3: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

by Ben Loory A review by Michael Patrick Brady

In Ben Loory's wild, dreamy debut collection of short stories, he explores the deepest recesses of the imagination, where even the most outlandish tales can yield profound insights.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day contains 40 featherweight fables, with a diverse cast of characters that includes erudite octopi, menacing hats, and lovestruck ducks. To say that disbelief must be suspended to appreciate Loory's work would be an understatement; utter credulity is required. His stories have the maundering, free-associative quality of dreams, and follow their own peculiar logic.

Loory's sparse, unadorned prose may seem at odds with the fantastical subject matter -- think Lydia Davis meets H.P. Lovecraft -- but this restraint allows his big ideas to flourish without distraction. Though he clearly revels in conjuring up curveballs, "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" is not just an exercise in unfettered surrealism. These stories are full of wit, humor, and heart, at times koan-like in their deceptive simplicity and focus.

Loory has a knack for twisted love stories. The protagonist of "The Duck" becomes infatuated with a rock. His fellow ducks make light of this unusual situation, but ultimately lend their support because after all, Loory writes, "ducks are all brothers when it comes right down to it." In the epic "UFO: A Love Story," two young lovers are torn apart when the boy's determination to convince his town that the pair had seen a flying saucer runs amok. Simple pranks evolve into an elaborate, all-consuming hoax that sees the boy staging a full-scale invasion of his town in an effort to win his girl back. Another story finds a house and the nearby ocean pining for one another, desperate to be together and to overcome the one thing that stands between them - a cliff.

These sweet, off-kilter tales are balanced by others that trade in subtle horror, where blind curiosity has dreadful consequences. Loory's oblique style is at its best here. More than anything, what he chooses not to reveal in his stories has the most impact, leaving readers to fill the gaps with terrors from their own imaginations.

"The Swimming Pool" concerns an indistinct monster lurking at the bottom of a public pool, undetected by all but one unfortunate man. In his panic, the man strives to defeat it but never fully understands his true predicament. The peril only becomes apparent after it's too late, and Loory's taut, final line - "He's set the monster free." -- is brimming with dark possibilities. "The Rope in the Sea" unfolds like a nightmare, with a young couple discovering a pair of dead bodies on the beach and coming to realize that what they thought was the beginning of their story was really its end. "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day" is a collection of smart experiments, but there are definitely a few misfires. "The Woman and the Basement" and "The Man Who Went to China" titles lack the revelatory spirit of the other stories, with ragged narratives that fail to make the loopy journeys seem as if they were worth taking. Part of the fun of getting lost in Loory's stories is seeing how he cleverly delivers "Aha!" moments when they're least expected. They are like portals through which the reader can escape back to reality. When they fail to appear, it's hard not to feel abandoned in a strange and unfathomable world.

More often than not, though, Loory proves himself to be a reliable guide, and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is a wonderful introduction to a writer capable of finding inspiration in the most unlikely places.

Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at

This review was originally published by the Boston Globe.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Review-a-Day for Thu, Jul 28: Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion

by Janet Reitman A review by Anne Saker

You've got to hand it to L. Ron Hubbard. He might have been relegated to the minor ranks of science fiction writers except that he figured out that spiritual seekers in post-nuclear America craved a personal understanding of the self and the universe -- and they would gladly pay for that knowledge again and again and again and again ...

Which is the delightful foundation of Janet Reitman's compelling, rich and courageous explanation of Hubbard's contribution to the 20th century, the religion called Scientology, now in its sixth decade. Yes, there are third-generation Scientologists.

Reitman got onto the subject with an insightful 2007 Rolling Stone story when the religion enjoyed renewed attention from Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch. For her book, she interviewed more than 100 people across the Scientology spectrum -- members, ex-members, celebrities, ex-celebrities, the devout and the militantly opposed.

She takes pains to detail how she crafted the narrative to be fair, and what comes through this prodigious reporting effort is a really good read about the birth of a strange and yet all-American institution.

The Hubbard who Reitman discovers is just the kind of narcissist who is inclined to see himself great enough to create a religion: a marketing genius and a fanciful storyteller, particularly about his own story, which comes with its own embellishments.

In later years, as the religion established itself and expanded like McDonald's (an overt model for the religion's managers), the role of Hubbard "took on more and more characteristics of a messiah. As the 'Source' of all of Scientology's teachings, Hubbard was decreed the creator of every bit of Scientology scripture, which was considered infallible."

Hubbard's death in 1986 led to the rise of an acolyte, David Miscavige, who joined Scientology as a boy and now at 19 ran the show. By then, franchise churches all over the world pulled in millions of dollars from adherents paying for repeated "auditings" to walk the Bridge To Total Freedom, the goal of which was to "go clear."

Woven into Reitman's accounting are significant subplots. The heartbreaking story of Lisa McPherson delivers the personal toll. She gave all her money and many years to Scientology, working at the church's mega-headquarters in Clearwater, Fla., but was losing her mind. Church workers performed what was essentially faith-healing, but McPherson died. Criminal charges against church officials were filed then dropped.

Reitman then goes into great and entertaining details about the church's longstanding giddiness over celebrities, especially the hots it's always had for Top Gun: "Cruise's strategic value to the church was so crucial that nothing was too good for the actor. Miscavige even created a special award for him ... which he presented to Cruise."

Reitman also considers the future, interviewing a host of teenage and young-adult Scientologists who believe that the excesses of the past are but one solid auditing away, and the church can only grow because it's got the best of intentions: to help the whole world go clear.

Inside Scientology is an impressive high-wire act producing a scrupulous history of how one man reframed the universe and how a lot of people paid for the privilege of agreeing with him.

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