The Dark Side of Love, by Rafik Schami
What a thrill for book lovers to find an author who can make a wonderfully readable mutigenerational tale in a little-written about society come totally alive for over 800 pages! Rafik Schami has truly done so with his novel The Dark Side of Love. Set in Twentieth Century Syrian Christian society, The Dark Side of Love follows the rivalries, conflicts and love affairs of two fictitious clans, the Shahins and the Mushtaks. Interwoven into the drama of the lives of clan members are the events of their times in Syria : the rise and fall of various Syrian military and civilian dictators, the stresses of being Christian in a predominately Muslim state, the terrible price dissenters pay for being politically active in a repressive society, and other aspects of Syrian history. Schami has divided his story into books and within these books he, at times, uses vignettes, to relate character and plot developments. Schami has likened his book to a huge mosaic in which each individual piece has, when taken together, created his story. Reminiscent of the sweepingly panoramic Russian novels of the Nineteenth Century, The Dark Side of Love is strongly recommended as a terrifically entertaining book that is filled with skillfully-crafted characters, story lines and the history of an extremely interesting Middle Eastern society.
December 2009 Archives
The Dark Side of Love, by Rafik Schami
Ghosts, by César Aira
Aira is an Argentine author, who enjoys considerable celebrity in his own country, but remains relatively unknown in the US. Ghosts, a mere 139 pages in length, is the story of an enclave of mostly Chilean immigrant laborers and their relatives, who are brought together by construction work at the site of future condominiums for the affluent in Buenos Aires. The entire story takes place on New Year's Eve and the weather is swelteringly hot. The eponymous ghosts are mostly peripheral to the action but invoke the magical realism of other Latino authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabelle Allende, albeit in a more muted manner. One charmingly whimsical passage describes the alcoholic construction foreman's discovery that cheap wine can be cooled and converted to a vintage fit for the table of the very rich by inserting a bottle into the thorax of any of the ghosts in the vicinity. Patri, the book's central character, is a dreamy adolescent girl of 15 whose fascination with the spectral inhabitants of the site ultimately brings the book to its abrupt denouement.
Andy Rooney: 60 Years of Wisdom and Wit, by Andrew A. Rooney
I admit it! I've always been an Andy Rooney "groupie". I've always found his observations on 60 Minutes a little irreverent, but highly entertaining. Now, having read Andy Rooney: 60 Years of Wisdom and Wit, I have a better understanding of the man. He's not just an old curmudgeon who complains about everything. He puts a lot of thought and effort into the pieces he writes for television. The book starts off with a description of growing up in New York state, attending Colgate (where he was on the football team) and being drafted during World War II. He wrote for Stars and Stripes, writing first-hand accounts of war. At one point, he was arrested on an Army bus for sitting with African-American soldiers. Rooney wrote exceptional pieces on heroism. Once the war was over, he started out as a free-lance writer, but ended up writing for Arthur Godfrey and then Garry Moore. He began working at CBS with Harry Reasoner on a series of specials, which covered bridges, hotels and the English language. When CBS refused to air his Essay on War, he left CBS. PBS aired it, and Rooney ended up with a Writer's Guild Award. He eventually went back to CBS, then moved to ABC. In 1962, Three Minutes With Andy Rooney was aired as a summer fill-in for Point/CounterPoint and has remained ever since. In 1990 he was suspended for remarks he made about homosexuals. (Unfortunately, this wasn't discussed at length anywhere in the book.) I love the arrangement of the book. There is a timeline in the beginning; a summary of his early life; stories from his Stars and Stripes days; numerous essays on all sorts of subjects; and an appendix with lists of his opinions, his "truths" and foods you may like but shouldn't eat! What really attracts me is his ability to approach any subject from an angle I never saw coming. This is a different type of book, well worth your time.
Beatles albums (remastered), by The Beatles
Who isn't a Beatles fan? Even the outspokenly anti-rock 'n roll Frank Sinatra recorded a couple of their songs (Something and Yesterday). Now, the Fab Four were a major part of the soundtrack to my adolescence and over the years, I have subjected all of their albums (excluding Let it Be, which I never cared for*) to aural exegesis. I have spent hours trying to decipher who is playing which guitar part** or even distinguish between guitar parts on a track; a task made more difficult by the original mixes which were great at conveying excitement, but not so great when it came to sonic subtleties. Not surprisingly, this was particularly true of the earlier albums. Consequently, I was pretty excited when I learned the entire Beatles catalog had been remastered and was due to be released. The advance reviews I read whetted my appetite further, with accounts of astonishing detail, clarity and presence. I have now listened to the entire batch (excluding Let it Be) and can affirm the raves. If you think you know this music well, you will be startled by what you have been missing. To my ears the major beneficiary of the new mixes is Sir Paul, whose bass playing throughout is even more of a wonder than heretofore. His 16th note repetitive pattern on The Word (Rubber Soul) for instance, had me laughing out loud at its sheer funkiness. Ringo's playing on the other hand, while still amazingly propulsive on the earlier cuts like Can't Buy Me Love (Hard Day's Night), seems to have been demoted in the new versions from idiosyncratic to sloppy in places. I doubt this will detract from your enjoyment, however. Of course, the truly important artifacts, the songs themselves, remain icons of popular music in the 20th Century. Revisiting this body of work, pretty much in its entirety, brought home to me, yet again, the caliber of songwriting inspiration and craft that set a standard of consistency unmatched since.
* Thanks, for the treacly string arrangements, Mr. Spector.
**Chances are, if you find a Beatle guitar part particularly interesting, it's not George Harrison. For example, the solo on Taxman (Revolver) was played by Paul and the cool rhythm guitar triplet figure running through All My Loving (With the Beatles) is John Lennon. That said, what would life be like without chiming Rickenbacker 12 strings?
Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, by Lynne Jonell
A lonely girl, a cantankerous Rat, and a Nanny who is doing very, very bad things.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
Reading Lolita in Tehran is an amazing read. It talks about topics that many do not dare talk about. Nafisi is an extraordinary woman who is knowledgeable of western culture and finds it hard to re-assimilate herself back to her original culture and country. She witnesses the radical changes of Iraq's government and the regimes that followed during and after her stay. She endures war, loss, and confusion. Nafisi starts out in her memoir as a fervent, and 'ready to teach' knowledgeable professor. She later finds herself banned from teaching works of literature she wants to teach, and not being able to be express individuality without the government enforced Hijab. Nafisi is forced to comply to the regimes' laws, rules, and demands until she resigns from the university and starts her own congregation/university with a handful of her most devoted female students/followers. Nafisi's home and personal space is then converted into a classroom where self expression is the norm and the Hijab is removed at each student's morality and desire. Nafisi introduces the reader to the lives of each student. We learn about all of their stories, trials, and triumphs. The students devour works of literature that Americans take for granted; the novels allow them to temporarily leave Tehran, the regime, and their familial duties and see the world in diverse perspectives. Not only is this book on the New York Times best sellers list, but it is also inspirational and a real documented act of valor.
Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, by Blake Bell
Perhaps best known to the public as the co-creator of "Spider-Man", artist Steve Ditko has produced a vast amount of work since the 1950s, yet remains a mystery to the general public. Starting out doing horror comics for obscure companies like Charlton, Ditko quickly became known for his moody, dark storytelling and offbeat depiction of characters. But it was his work for Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, where he co-created Spider-Man with writer/editor Stan Lee, that Ditko made his mark. Author Blake Bell details the progression of Ditko's storytelling processes, how he began to project the uncompromising "Objectivism" theories of Ayn Rand in his work, his departure from Marvel in 1966 due to artistic and financial differences, and his failure over the ensuing decades to recreate his earlier success. Bell also goes into how Ditko's Randian outlook alienated readers and publishers, with the result being his producing half-hearted work for Charlton, DC Comics, and (after 1979) Marvel, while saving his more artistic and personal work for self-publishing. Relegated to obscurity and near-poverty, Ditko, now in his 80s, recently resumed publishing his own work this year, his inflexible attitude resulting in his denying (or being denied) the proper financial rewards/royalties for his more famous and accessible work. Bell convincingly paints a picture of an artist refusing to abandon his principles and the unhappy results (lack of offered work; inability to work with other professionals who don't share his views) that happen when someone like Ditko limits himself to only one medium (comics) to promote his beliefs. Bell also provides a detailed history of Ditko's other work, including his lesser-known super hero stuff (fans of "Dr. Strange", "Captain Atom", "Blue Beetle" and "The Hawk and the Dove", among others, will be in heaven), his surprisingly good (from the 50s, before he discovered Rand) humor comics, and his innovative use of wash inks on his black and white work for horror magazines in the 60s like "Creepy" and "Eerie" as well as lots of cover and interior page reproductions. Despite the tragic aftermath of Ditko's professional life, Strange and Stranger is nevertheless a celebration of the best of Steve Ditko's still-influential contributions to the comics field.