June 30, 2011
I found myself reading Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything non-stop, with a pencil in hand, underlining like crazy. That totally took me by surprise, but then, I didn’t know I’d be reading an astute explanation about what I’ve been feeling recently, something I couldn’t put my finger on. It’s an uncomfortable sense of how everything seems to be monetized, from our work to our personal relationships to our education to our creativity to our charity work. A sense that nothing should be attempted unless its value can be measured and brings advantage. A sense that we should be motivated by keeping up and constantly improving and optimizing ourselves, as if who we are and what we’re doing isn’t and never will be enough because there’s always something new to be achieved.
According to author F. S. Michaels, what I’ve been sensing is the governing pattern in today’s society, a master story that shapes how we think, feel and act, forming a monoculture, which, in our time, is economic. Michaels writes:
“Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside.”
An economic monoculture, we learn in this insightful book, isn’t simply focused on how to make, spend and/or keep money. It involves a more profound and intricately woven tapestry of values and assumptions that, whether we’re aware of them or not, are guiding us. For example, society predominately rewards us for job performance, and so we maximize our time in that relationship, outsourcing our domestic lives to profit-making businesses (child care, lawn care, house cleaning). There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what we accept as our story. We also accept worker wellness programs, but they’re in place “not because we value health in and of itself, but because healthy workers are productive workers, and the company’s Medicare costs have to be reduced.”
The concepts may be familiar, but in Monoculture, they’re uniquely gathered and, suddenly, that governing pattern comes into focus, and we see how it’s affecting not only our work and home but also our community, religion and education. According to Michaels, it’s important we understand how the pattern unfolds, so “you can discover the consequences of the [resulting] monoculture and decide if that’s how you really want to live.”
She writes in clear, energetic prose that’s thoughtful, engaging and unforced. She defines and analyzes without judgment or insistence and copiously refers to her sources, but without rude interruption to her easy narrative flow. I wish Michaels had delved a bit more into the religion and science monocultures of the 16th and 17th centuries, which she only briefly mentions, but that would’ve increased the page count of this just-right size of under 200 pages.
One would think such a starchy title as Monoculture would give entrance to stiff, laborious reading, but this exploration is nothing of the kind. It’s a breath of fresh air, recognizing the dangers at play in today’s monoculture because “what it means to be human will always encompass more than economic values and assumptions.” It will always encompass more than one story.
June 24, 2011
Peter Robinson created the successful Inspector Banks Mysteries Series, beginning with Gallows View, published in 1987. That first Banks mystery appeared on TLC after my visit to Partners & Crime bookstore in NYC’s Greenwich Village, where the bookseller recommended the series. I asked for not just a good detective novel — an entertaining one-off – but an already well-developed series I could start at the beginning and then, book after book, connect with the lead sleuth through his or her personal ups and downs. It’s not just the intrigue of a mystery I wanted in each book, but also a strong protagonist who mattered to me.
This week I read #2 in the Inspector Banks Mysteries, A Dedicated Man, which — I might add – was not that easy to get a hold of. One local library had deaccessioned it, and Barnes & Noble online had only one in stock at the time. I discovered that after I ordered it, and they sent it to someone else. Instead, I got her order, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. B&N didn’t have a replacement available, but I found an even better deal at a local used bookstore. (I should’ve looked there first.)
In Gallows View, we learn Inspector Banks relocated from London to the the village of Eastvale in the Yorkshire Dales because he thought countryside crime would be less intense than city crime and allow him to slow down. He discovers, however, there is as much greed, deception and adultery in his new territory as anywhere else, leading to someone’s violent murder. This time it’s a former lecturer from the University of Leeds found buried in a stone wall. The suspects include the historian’s group of pub friends — the eminent local doctor, a writer of cheap thrillers and an untrustworthy land developer — as well as his editor and a 20-something folk singer. There’s also the dead man’s wife and his sizable, recent inheritance to be considered.
But everyone tells Chief Inspector Banks this intelligent historian and role model, who was dedicated to his work, didn’t have an enemy in the world. Ironically, though, someone murdered him, so what gives? It’s just the kind of twist that charges up Robinson’s brisk style, along with smartly drawn characters that challenge the detective everywhere he turns.
Banks’ charming, savvy wife, Sandra, appears less often in A Dedicated Man than in Gallows View, and there is only one mention of psychologist Jenny Fuller, who caused Banks’ heart to go all a flutter in Gallows View. I still have a feeling Jenny is going to be back, with greater romantic consequences. And a humorous touch: Banks tries to kick his cigarette habit these days with a pipe, which he thinks will be good for his image. The darn thing won’t cooperate half the time, however, and then he breaks it. Banks barely takes a clean breath before he’s bumming cigarettes from the suspects and fellow investigators.
Next up is A Necessary End. I look forward to more time with Robinson’s persistent, shrewd and thoughtful detective, who always manages to get into lively conversations with colorful characters in his pursuit of the truth. While the ending of A Dedicated Man is not a shocking surprise, it’s a very clever one, as Banks realizes: “Eliminate the impossible and whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. Or so Sherlock Holmes had said.”
June 14, 2011
Here’s a book for bibliophiles who love bookplates, those labels one pastes on the inside front cover claiming “ex libris,” Latin for from the books of, with one’s name beneath. It’s a book-art tradition receding into the nostalgic past behind the propelling forces of technology, but it’s an art form preserved by museums and collectors, and so not forgotten.
Martin Hopkinson’s Ex Libris: The Art of Bookplates published by Yale University Press showcases examples from a collection in the British Museum. The description from Yale University Press says:
“Originating in their modern printed form in 16th-century Germany, where books were highly valuable and treasured, bookplates became an art form practiced by artists across Europe and beyond. This book traces the fascinating evolution of bookplate design over time and across national boundaries, showcasing 100 key examples of ex libris art.”
That’s 100 examples within 112 pages, a veritable picture book.
The Guardian created a tantalizing slide show of Hopkinson’s new book, published in Britain by the British Museum Press, and the Wall Street Journal gives a peek in this article, The Fine Art of Saying ‘It’s My Book’.
Growing up, I used to receive bookplates as gifts, but those were store-bought, preprinted bookplates on the industrialized end of the bookplate evolution. A quick online search proves you can still purchase bookplates from retailers. Some, unfortunately, refer to them as “stickers.” Imagine having a “sticker” personalized for your library, an original designed by an artist who creates it with your life, work or personality as inspiration? That’s much of what you’ll see in Hopkinson’s book, including the bookplate below, among those in The Guardian’s slide show, photograph provided to The Guardian by the Trustees of the British Museum.
June 10, 2011
Last summer, David Nicholls’ novel One Day hit the U.S. summer reading lists. This year, the movie will be released in August, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, the novel’s romantic couple. Early comments about the movie, such as “it won’t be able to capture the magic of the book” and ”the trailer gives everything away,” drove me to read the book first because it consistently received rave reviews. The inventive narrative premise is a big part of the book’s irresistibility and tension. Can the movie keep us similarly bewitched?
One Day begins with Emma and Dexter the day after college graduation in 1988, wondering what their future holds while hesitantly attracted to one another. It is July 15, and each chapter checks in on them, together and separately, on that one day every year — the anniversary of their meeting – for the next 20 years. According to the U.K. Telegraph, the intention of author David Nicholls is to “create the impression of looking through a photo album, so that the characters seem to change, yet remain the same. Twenty years is a substantial sprawl, so my initial instinct was to cover landmarks – births, marriages, deaths. Instead, I’ve taken one day at random – like a date on a bank statement.”
Even though Emma and Dexter have a deep-seated instinct they belong together, they doubt and ignore their feelings and pursue what they think is right for them – for the beautiful and humble Emma, a life of meaning that makes a difference in the world; and for the charming, wealthy Dexter, a life of fun and fame. What keeps them apart and just friends feeds the humor and anticipation of what will happen next. And they are delightful characters – real, likeable and full of life – to spend 400+ pages.
One Day takes place for the most part in London. Some of the British locations, colloquialisms and cultural references were lost on me, but that in no way affected my enjoyment of the book. All that Emma and Dexter experience translates well into American 20- and 30-something ideals, motivations and beliefs. The book was originally published in the U.K. in 2009 and then in the U.S. as a Vintage Contemporaries paperback in 2010. The U.K. Telegraph described it as “a sleeper hit of huge proportions” and said the book became the highest-selling British novel of 2010. It did well in the U.S. also, landing on the New York Times best-seller list.
The New York Post claims One Day has ”the potential to be the kind of movie — like ‘Annie Hall,’ or ‘Two for the Road,’ or ‘Terms of Endearment’ — that offers both big laughs and a knockout emotional punch.” Since I’ve finished the book, time for the trailer, which The Guardian says gives everything away. I can’t resist. Besides, I already know all the twists and turns experienced by Emma and Dexter, as their lives intersect, including the final, devastating surprise.
June 7, 2011
I received a copy of Gaylord Brewer’s new poetry collection in March via a friend who’s a poet and university professor. He recommended the title and also procured a signed copy for me (love that!). I read several of the poems at that time and experienced subjects, philosophy and use of words that seduced my senses. By ‘use of words’ I mean how they’re conjoined and phrased, in a way I want to read out loud or repeat to enjoy a textured rhythm or cleverness.
But it wasn’t until these summer days arrived that I read Give Over, Graymalkin from beginning to end, during early dawn hours, and in so doing, “reclined in a therapy of summer morning.” That phrase is a beginning line in a poem about the dead metaphor of clouds. It appears in a section devoted to the banality of such overused metaphors, including the post-divorce Harley and the “old guy on that hog.” As Brewer confirms in this interview, the 15 poems with their “ribald humor and literary cynicism” are a thematic detour from the other, more reflective poems in the book.
The majority of the poems were written in India, Spain and France, and it’s the section from the time in India that’s my favorite. In one of those poems, Brewer makes a phone call to his mother in Kentucky in which he tries to express his experiences through “the echoes, stalls, hollows” of the long distance connection that “make joking difficult./ I hear my voice, stiff and loud.” In another he speaks of the spiritual guidance of a Swami who instructs him to laugh first thing in the morning – a laughing meditation – and so “I part curtains, lock doors and windows,/and start laughing my ass off.” It’s a brilliant poem carefully balanced between the humor of what seems ridiculous and the hope of a seeker.
Brewer’s writing invites pensive engagement without getting too heavy. Indeed, his reasoning, meditative voice in this terrific collection gets under your skin. Consider in “Jungle Appetites” how he reaches the point of recognizing “All the easy,/mournful luck of my life, announcing to the wild.”
June 2, 2011
Craig Silvey’s new novel (his second) is categorized as a book for young readers by Alfred A. Knopf, which published the book in April. And yet it’s standing with adult literary heavyweights as a contender for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. That struck me as unusual, but then I realized the teen classification is from the U.S. publisher. I checked Allen & Unwin, the Australian company that first published the book in 2009, and Jasper Jones is listed there as literary fiction. Either way it falls, I had to find out what this book is about, and why so much attention is on it – Jasper Jones has won scads of awards in Silvey’s native Australia, including the Australian Indie Book of the Year Award 2009.
The novel is set in a small Australian town in the 1960s. It opens with the feral 14-year-old Jasper Jones seeking the help of 13-year-old narrator Charlie Bucktin in covering up a murder until he can find who’s responsible for it. Jasper can’t go to the police because he’s a social outcast whom everyone blames for whatever goes wrong in town. Also, Laura Wishart, the girl who was murdered, is hanging from a tree in his secret hideout. She was Jasper’s best friend.
While the story begins with a murder, it doesn’t predictably dissolve into a “whodunit.” Silvey brings other plots to the forefront: Charlie’s BFF relationship with Jeffrey Lu, a talented cricket player shunned by the town’s team because he’s Vietnamese and Australian soldiers are dying in the Vietnam war; his confrontational relationship with his mother; and his complicated love relationship with Eliza Wishart, Laura’s sister.
One of the most entertaining elements of this vivid story are the conversations between the bookish Charlie and the amusing Jeffrey about who’s the better superhero, Batman or Superman, and how stripes get into toothpaste and why men have nipples. It’s like overhearing kids on a school bus. Maybe this is kid talk written for a teen perspective, but it’s also masterful character creation that makes Charlie and Jeffrey fully real to an adult.
Racism and social ostracism are powerful themes, but the concept of fear as a misguided source for belief and action is the most affecting one. Indeed, it’s at the root of all that goes wrong. At one point, Jasper says to Charlie: “See, everyone here’s afraid of something and nuthin. This town, that’s how they live, and they don’t even know it. They stick to what they know, what they bin told. They don’t unnerstand that it’s just a choice you make.”
Silvey packs a lot in to this enjoyable, intriguing and briskly paced novel, and he does it so well it’s as if we’re living and breathing the air of this small mining town. Teen lit? I’d say a definite yes, but it’s on the mature level of the Hunger Games, which I’m guessing will fill theaters with its adult readers when the movie’s released 2012. IMPAC winner? Definitely a worthy contender, and we’ll find out June 15.