Sunday, February 25, 2007

Inside Rikers, by Jennifer Wynn

(hb; 2001: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

“Rikers Island – just six miles from the Empire State Building – is one of the largest, most complex and expensive penal institutions in the world, yet most New Yorkers couldn’t find it on a map. Like many prisons in America, Rikers performs an expert magic trick: it disappears people, keeping in those who want to get out and keeping out those who want to get in.

“Jennifer Wynn has been going in for seven years. She entered first as a journalist, volunteered as a writing teacher, and then served as director of a unique rehabilitation program known as Fresh Start.

“In the genre of literary sociology, Wynn takes readers over the Rikers Island bridge, into the jails, and then back out – to the communities where her students were born and raised. She chronicles their journeys as they struggle to ‘go straight’ and find respect in a city that fears and rejects them. Moving stories from a handful of ex-cons who have transformed their lives offer hope to a crime-weary public and to former prisoners in search of second chances. Interviews with leading criminologists shed light on the motives of urban offenders and explain why nearly 75 percent of Rikers inmates return to jail within a year of being released.

Inside Rikers also captures voices from the other side, the nearly ten thousand correction officers who earn their living ‘on the Rock,’ as the inmates call it, and why many believe that they, too, are ‘doing time.’”


Good, informative read about those who “do time” on Rikers, whether they’re prisoners or guards. There weren’t a lot revelations in the book for me – being a viewer/reader of prison-based (screen)writers – but for anyone who’s unaware of, or interested in, the high rates of recidivism among prisoners, the past history of police and prisoner brutality, and how rehabilitation and education have improved the lives of ex-prisoners (as well as society in general), this would be a superb place to start one’s research.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne

(hb; 1926)


Wondrous collection of stories centering around Pooh and his friends – Christopher Robin, his lovingly corrective human friend; Piglet, timorous and true; Eeyore the melancholic gray donkey; Tigger, the bouncy tiger; Kanga and her baby, Roo.

The tone of the tales is gentle and charming – for example, when honey-loving Pooh and Piglet track an unseen never-described Woozle, whose exponential tracks circle around a tree; or when Eeyore, depressed, loses his tail, and Pooh and Piglet set out to find it. Other tales involve Pooh and the others trying to trick forest newcomers Kanga and her pouch-baby Roo into leaving, and Christopher Robin and the gang going on an “expotition” to an imaginary North Pole.

I read these stories as a child, and they were great then; they’re just as great now.

Followed by the anthology The House at Pooh Corner.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Clash By Night, by Henry Kuttner

(hb; 1943: novella)


Originally published as a serial (called Fury) under the pen name Lawrence O'Donnell, this is a pure blast of action, with plenty of bobby pin twists.

The plot: Brian Scott, a Free Companion mercenary whose regiment (the Doones Brigade) protects the Montana Keep (an undersea Venusian city surrounded by an "impervium dome") is called into action, when the neighboring Virginia Keep hires another Free Company to attack the Montana Keep. This time, it's a different mission for Scott: a veteran, he's thinking about quitting the mercenary life, and joining the civilians (scientists and rich folk) -- who tolerate, but do not fully appreciate the Free Companions. There's also the matter of who he wants to spend his future with: Jeana, his longtime, loving Free Companion wife; or Ilene Kane, a younger, lively member of the Keep's elite.

Thrilling old-school science fiction tale. Worth your time, this.

A loosely-connected sequel, Destination: Infinity, followed "a year or two later" (according to David Drake, in his "Introduction" to the novella). David Drake wrote another novella, set in the same milieu, in 1991, titled The Jungle (which also contains Kuttner's source novella, Clash By Night).

Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

(hb; 2007: first book in the A Mistress of the Art of Death series)

From the inside flap:

"In medieval Cambridge, four children have been murdered. The Catholic townsfolk blame their Jewish neighbors, so to save them from the rioting mob, the Cambridge Jews are placed under the protection of the king. Henry II is no friend of the Jews -- or anyone, really -- but he believes in law and order, and he desperately needs the taxes he receives from Jewish merchants. Hoping scientific investigation will help catch the true killer, Henry calls on his cousin, the King of Sicily -- whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe -- and asks for his finest 'master of the art of death,' the earliest form of medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno, an expert in the science of anatomy and the art of detection. But her name is Adelia; the king has been sent a 'mistress of the art of death.'

"In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia faces danger at every turn. As she examines the victimcs and retraces their last steps, she must conceal her true identity in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she's assisted by one of the king's tax collectors, Sir Rowley Picot, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. A former Crusader knight, Rowley may be a needed friend -- or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia's investigation takes her along Cambridge's shadowy river paths, and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again..."


Riveting Medieval mystery, with modern touches and themes -- there's a passage or two that's easily applicable to America today -- and easy-to-care-about characters.

The killer isn't easy to suss out, there's a bonanza of fascinating period information, and the finish leaves room for future Adelia-based novels, while providing a satisfactory wrap-up to this particular tale.

Highly recommended, this!

Followed by The Serpent's Tale.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Prizzi’s Honor, by Richard Condon

(hb; 1982: first book in the Prizzi quadrilogy)

From the inside flap:

“Charley Partanna is the sottocapo of the powerful Prizzis, a ‘Prince of Murderers’ who made his bones at the age of thirteen with his first hit. Irene Walker, ex-prostitute, ex-mob courier, is now a beautiful Los Angeles ‘tax consultant’ whose desk and ledgers hide her true identity as a freelancer of the deadliest kind.

“Charley and Irene meet. He falls helplessly in love with her, and she with him. Together, caught in the intensely brutal, intensely ‘moral’ world of the Mafia, they make love and war, until Charley’s betrayal of ‘Prizzi’s honor’ leads him inexorably to the ultimate betrayal.”


Wryness accents this jet black comedy of romantic terrors, where an atypical code of righteousness is held in esteem, even trumping one’s relations with his (or her) non-Family family. Both “straight” (non-Mob) and Mob society are slyly skewered by Condon, whose characters’ personalities shape the novel’s driving drama and intermittent action. Difficult to put down, this, between the effective humor and dialogue, relatable characters, and heartfelt (if sometimes shady) drama.

One of the best comedic books I’ve ever read about the Mafia – easily worth your time.

Followed by Prizzi’s Family.

Prizzi's Honor, the film, was released stateside on June 14, 1985. Jack Nicholson played Charley Partanna. Kathleen Turner played Irene Walker. Anjelica Huston played Maerose Prizzi. John Randolph played Angelo "Pop" Partanna. William Hickey played Don Corrado Prizzi. Robert Loggia played Eduardo Prizzi.

CCH Pounder (billed as C.C.H. Pounder) played Peaches Altamont. Lawrence Tierney played Lt. Hanley.

The film was co-scripted by author Richard Condon and Janet Roach. John Huston directed it.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

(hb; 2005: memoir)

From the inside flap:

“Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideas and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an ‘excitement addict.’ Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

“Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town – and the family – Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.”


Walls’s account of her childhood – “rough” would be putting it lightly – is balanced and fair, considering the difficulties her parents put her and her siblings through. Her parents loved them, but they were casually negligent, in the way only people with seemingly unmanageable personal demons can be. When things got even more desperate – the children were eating the last stick of butter because that’s all the food that was left in the house – that negligence became unintentionally cruel (e.g., when one of Jeannette’s uncles tried to repeatedly molest her, her parents told Jeannette to shrug it off because if they raised a stink about it, they’d have no place to live).

The book spans approximately thirty years, from the Walls’ Midwest wanderings, to their below-trailer trash existence in West Virginia to Jeannette’s later New York affluence as a magazine writer. Through it all, Walls shows sympathy, shot through with anger, for her parents, who for all their faults, did love their children.

It ends on a kind, but realistic note, maintaining the desperate rueful humor that constantly buoys this potentially depressing work.

Wonderful book. By all means, check it out.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Blown Away: The Rolling Stones & The Death of the Sixties, by A.E. Hotchner

(hb; 1990: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

" 'The sixties generation came to an abrupt, tragic end on a desolate, barren field in Livermore, California, with the Rolling Stones presiding over the demise.' What had started a decade earlier by an idealistic generation filled with romantic notions of love and peace ended up 'ugly, brutal and bloody.' The scene was the infamous Altamont concert, and there in the space of a few hours of madness and killing, Mick Jagger and the Stones ushered the sixties to a frenzied close.

"On a July night just months before, Brian Jones had been found spread-eagled on the bottom of his mansion's swimming pool. The mysterious circumstances of his death were never solved, and the case was quietly filed away as just one more rocker's drug-soaked death. The generation would certainly have its share of them: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Alan Wilson, among scores of others less well known. The Vietnam War was raging, the Manson murders had stunned the world, and the disaffected, angry 'Jagger generation' had begun to devour itself in an orgy of violence and drugs.

"It was the violence, not the drugs, that killed Brian Jones. Hotchner reveals here how Brian was murdered.

"Blown Away begins with the rise of the Rolling Stones. Hotchner leads us from the scrappy boyhoods of Mick Jagger, Keith richards, Charlie Watts, Billy Wyman, and Brian Jones through their meteoric ascent to near-gods. He explores their notorious sex lives, exorbitant drug habits, explosive creativity, and grinding careers. Finally, Hotchner unravels the mystery of Brian Jones's death and exposes the turmoil within the rock group that led to a struggle in the final days of Jones's life."


Blown Away is a fantabulous overview of the Stones and their first riotous decade together, and how Brian Jones -- moody, hypersensitive and possibly the most talented of the Stones -- was eventually ousted from the band that he'd brought together, named and nurtured through their early deprivated years. Jones's drowning at Cotchford Farm, given the hazy and compelling evidence provided by various witnesses, is conspiracy-worthy and intriguing, more than fodder for the tabloids. Not only that, but Hotchner links Jones's death to the decline of the Stones' creativity, and the decline of the Sixties. Burnt out by that decade's spiritual, sexual, political and chemical excesses, the Stones, and their fans, missed a chance at remolding society into something better.

Some of Hotchner's ideas in this latter argument may read as pie-in-the-sky idealism to some readers, but that idealism (and resulting disappointment) is appropriate, considering the themes and subject matter of the book. One of the things I appreciated about Blown Away was how Hotchner avoided unnecessary salaciousness (which worked for Neil Strauss and Motley Crue in The Dirt), salaciousness that would've sabotaged Hotchner's integral arguments and themes.

Great comprehensive rock read, one of the best I've read in a long time. Worth your time, especially if you're an early Stones fan.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Beauty Junkies, by Alex Kuczynski

(hb; 2006: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

"A star writer for the New York Times Styles section captures the follies, frauds, and fanaticism that fuel the American pursuit of youth and beauty in a wickedly revealing excursion into the burgeoning business of cosmetic enhancement.

"Americans are aging faster and getting fatter than any other population on the planet. At the same time, our popular notions of perfect beauty have become so strict it seems even Barbie wouldn't have a chance of making it into the local beauty paegent.

"Aging may be a natural fact of lie, but for a growing number of Americans its hallmarks -- wrinkles, love handles, jiggling flesh -- are seen as obstacles to be conquered on the path to lasting, flawless beauty. In Beauty Junkies Alex Kuczynski, whose sly wit and fearless reporting in the Times have won her fans across the country, delivers a fresh and irresistable look at America's increasingly desperate pursuitof ultimate beauty by any means necessary.

"From a group of high maintenance New York City women who devote themselves to preserving their looks twenty-four hours a day, to 'surgery safari' in South Africa complete with 'after' photographs of magically rejuvenated patients posing with wild animals, to a podiatrist's office in Manhattan where a 'foot face-lift' provides women with the right fit for their $700 Jimmy Choos, Kuczynski portrays the all-American quest for self-transformation in all its extremes. In New York, lawyers become Botox junkies in an effort to remain poker-faced. In Los Angeles, women of an uncertain age nip and tuck their most private areas so that every inch of their bodies is as taut as their lifted faces. Across the country, young women graduating from high school receive gifts of breast implants -- from their parents.

"As medicine and technology stretch the boundaries of biology, Kuczynski asks whether cosmetic surgery might even be part of human evolution, a kind of cosmetic survival of the fittest -- or firmest?"


Engaging and informative, Kuczynski shows how elective (non-necessary cosmetic) surgery went from something to be ashamed of, to something to gloat about. The author admits to her own brief addiction to elective surgery (a liposuctioned butt; Restylane for her nasolabial/upper lips), and the minor disaster(s) it created for her. She also writes about how an increasing number of patients are dying or getting sick from botched surgeries (not always the surgeons' fault), particularly the January 2004 highly-publicized death of Olivia Goldsmith, middle-aged author of the novel First Wives Club (which became a popular 1996 film).

Excellent, thought-provoking read, this. Check it out.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

(pb; 1925)

From the back cover:

"Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of beautiful but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love."


Clever, short work about a young woman (Kitty Fane) whose fickleness and infidelity leads to tragedy. She's slightly more likeable than her lover, the charming caddish Charles Townsend, but not by much. Her husband, Walter, is deserving of pity -- though he himself was foolish for marrying such a stupid creature to begin with.

Maugham keeps the storyline flowing in an interesting, character-focussed manner until the middle when Kitty and several of the nuns in the Mei-tan-fu convent (site zero of the cholera outbreak), natter on too much -- the length of several short chapters -- about the history of the convent, and faith. Otherwise, aside from the generally unlikeable leads (Kitty and Charlie), this is a good read, with a strong ending.


This became a film in 1934. Greta Garbo played Katrin Koerber Fane (aka, "Kitty"). Herbert Marshall played Dr. Walter Fane. George Brent played Jack ["Charlie"] Townsend. Warner Oland played General Yu. Richard Boleslawski directed the film.


Two remakes followed.

The Seventh Sin was the title of the first remake. Released in 1957, Eleanor Parker played Carol Carwin [Kitty Fane]. Bill Travers played Dr. Walter Carwin [Walter Fane]. Jean-Pierre Aumont played Paul Duvelle [Charles Townsend]. Francoise Rosay played Mother Superior. Directed by Ronald Neame and an uncredited Vincente Minelli.


The second remake was released stateside on January 19, 2007.

Naomi Watts played Kitty Fane. Edward Norton played Walter Fane. Liev Schreiber played Charlie Townsend. Diana Rigg played Mother Superior. John Curran directed the film. Toby Jones played Waddington.


(Interesting, related segment from Chad Jones's article about Maugham ["Coming full 'Circle,' director Lamos returns to ACT"] in the Tri-Valley Herald, January 5, 2007:

"During both world wars, [Maugham] worked with the British Intelligence Department and even operated as a secret agent. James Bond creator Ian Fleming said he based some of Bond's exploits on Maugham's wartime experiences.")

<em>Mother Night</em> by Kurt Vonnegut

(pb; 1961) From the back cover “ Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy du...