Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

(hb; 2007)

From the inside flap:

"In Persia, in the seventeenth century, a young woman is forced to leave behind the life she knows and move to a new city. Her father's unexpected death has upended everything -- her expectation of marriage, her plans for the future -- and cast her and her mother upon the mercy of relatives in the fabled city of Isfahan.

"Her uncle is a wealthy designer of carpets for the Shah's court, and the young woman is instantly drawn to his workshop. She takes in everything -- the dyes, the yarns, the meanings of the thousand ancient patterns -- and quickly begins designing carpets herself. This is men's work, but her uncle recognizes both her passion and her talent and allows her secretly to cross that line.

"But then a single disastrous, headstrong act threatens her very existence and casts her and her mother into an even more desperate situation. She is forced into an untenable form of marriage, a marriage contract renewable monthly, for a fee, to a wealthy businessman. Caught between forces she can barely comprehend, she knows only that she must act on her own, risking everything, or a face a life lived at the whim of others..."

Review:

Exotic, romantic and expeditiously written, there are few surprising twists, but Amirrezvani's assured narrative flow still bedazzles, like the colors and designs of the carpets that so enthrall her unnamed protagonist. It's a pleasure to watch her heroine mature into an artisan -- and a woman -- of the noblest sort: not only that, but The Blood of Flowers is an inspirational, fascinating glimpse into a different culture at what was a pivotal historical period for Iran (then called Persia).

Check it out.

2018 A.D., by Samuel J. Lundwall

(pb; 1975)

From the back cover:

"They needed the first girl born in the first minute of the first day of the first year of the Twenty-first Century. They needed her for an ad campaign that would put millions into the accounts of the giant conglomerate that owned it, and rom there into an unpublicized holding company that controlled that, and thence into the secret Swiss bank account that directed the holding company, and from there to the numbered box that ran the account, and from there to -- nobody knew, not even the Swiss bankers. But though the life of everyone in the world was supposed to be taped on computerized credit records down to the smallest detail, hers was not. They knew her name, and that was all.

"When this book was published in Sweden it became a controversial but immediate bestseller -- it was too uncomfortably prophetic to be just satirical science fiction. Its musical accompaniment, entitled King Kong Blues, became a top hit record -- a rock-beat for the next century. What Brave New World meant for the Thirties, what 1984 meant for the Forties, what A Clockwork Orange meant for the Sixties, 2018 A.D. means for the Seventies."

Review:

This chilling, hilarious and dystopian novel could almost be describing the world today. Public schools are "run by private companies working on 'performance contracts'." Cameras monitor citizens everywhere. Reality must-see snuff TV rules the dumbing-down boxes. Water, corporate-owned, is in man-made shortage. Pensioner "gangs" -- old men desperate for money to survive -- run amok in the streets, assaulting law-abiding citizens. The Mafia quietly runs a media-trumpeted "slum" (actually a den of vice) called Squatter City, where those desperate to escape detection and monitoring flee.

It's in this tableau that Erik Lenning, a married ad man who's secretly into BDSM, tracks down Anniki Norijn, a mysterious twenty-something actress and sometimes escort. Other characters, succinctly portrayed, populate Lundwall's vision as well: Leonard J. Kockenbergh Jr. (Lenning's boss); Tim Eulenspiegel (a City South slumlord who's also one of Anniki's tricks). And, more importantly, Sheik Yarasin ar-Rechehidd, a Saudi who's the "true [finanical and political] master of the world," and is making startling business decisions that just might bring everything down (e.g., moving the European and American auto industries into Siberia).

There are so many classic lines in this milestone novel that I don't even know where to begin (on that count). Simply put, this is heady stuff, well worth your time and money.

Lundwall includes a bibliography of then-current news articles that inspired 2018 A.D. (I love it when authors do that), that add to the eerie reality of the work.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond

(hb; 2007)


From the inside flap:

"Life changes in an instant. On a foggy beach. In the seconds when Abby Mason -- photographer, fiancee, soon-to-be-stepmother -- looks into her camera and commits her greatest error... here is the tale of a family torn apart, of the search for the truth behind a child's disappearance, and of one woman's unwavering faith in the redemptive power of love...

"Six-year old Emma vanished into the thick San Francisco fog. Or into the heaving Pacific. Or somewhere just beyond: to a parking lot, a stranger's van, or a road with traffic flashing by. Now, as the days drag into weeks, as the police lose interest and fliers fade on telephone poles, Emma's father finds solace in religion and scientific probability -- but Abby can only wander the beaches and city streets, attempting to recover the past and the little girl she lost. With her life at a crossroads, she will leave San Francisco for a country thousands of miles away. And there, by the side of another sea, Abby will make the most astounding discovery of all -- as the truth of Emma's disappearance unravels..."

Review:

Less ethereal than her first novel, Dream of the Blue Room, Richmond's writing shows a natural maturation; she's grown as writer, as is evidenced by Abby's yearlong journey from disbelief and grief, to quiet redemption.

Richmond alternates Abby's "what might've happened" scenarios regarding Emma's disappearance with Abby's often-heartbreaking and harsh reality, gentling the proceedings with a clear love of San Francisco (and its nooks and crannies, some well-known, others local-cool), as well as Playa Hermosa (in Costa Rica). So intense are the emotions displayed (or hidden) by the characters that the reader gets caught in the titular fog that engulfs them.

A beautiful, realistic and uplifting finish -- shot through with melancholy, like San Francisco itself -- caps this gripping heartachey work.

Check this baby out.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care”, by Lee Server

(hb; 2001: biography)

Review:

Server provides a balanced lifelong view of one of the silver screen's most iconic actors, a regular guy who viewed acting as a job (nothing more), something to keep his family housed and fed. Mitch, or Bob, as he was known to his friends and associates, was privately sensitive and read many books (he was a longtime fan of John Steinbeck), yet his image -- also an integral part of the man -- as a philandering hard-drinking perenially-cool pothead dominated much of his life, resulting in many of the "gorilla pictures" he starred in.

(A "gorilla picture," Mitchum is quoted as saying in the book, is "[a film where] you get $250,000 to do all the wrong things in ten reels and in the last shot you get the girl and fade into the sunset.")

But Mitchum didn't only do "gorilla pictures." He starred in Where Danger Lives, Night of the Hunter, The Sundowners, both versions of Cape Fear ('62 and '91), The List of Adrian Messenger, Farewell, My Lovely, the hilariously deadpan Dead Man, and, of course, one of my all-time favorites, Out of the Past (which later was remade as Against All Odds, sans Mitchum).

Server also shows how Mitchum's disdain for pretense hurt him and those around him, as well. Mitchum's no-bulls**t attitude was often verbalized, and he didn't care who heard him -- and, particularly when he got older, his views were often misconstrued as racist, homophobic and insensitive by certain quarters of the public. But, again, there was more to the man than that. When he wasn't bored by a film he was shooting (and therefore, not drinking excessively), he was an admirable professional actor; however, if he felt like the film was a dogs**t endeavor, debacles occurred.

There's so much to the man's life that is fascinating -- his early, disaffected years; his friendships with era-definitive, sometimes creepy celebrities (Howard Hughes comes to mind); his marriage to wife Dorothy, which survived countless affairs, including the one that almost wrecked their marriage, Mitchum's three-year sexual liaison with Two For the Seesaw co-star, Shirley MacLaine; how Mitchum's proclivities for alcohol and pot later debilitated him, and contributed to his death at age 79 (on June 30, 1997, one month away from his eightieth birthday, and one day before his friend Jimmy Stewart died).

This is one of the best biographies I've read in the past year. Highly recommended, this, for anyone who's into noir, Hollywood's golden age (and its celebrities), and captivating characters who just happened to be real people.

By all means, check it out.

Brothel: Mustang Ranch & Its Women, by Alexa Albert

(pb; 2001: non-fiction)

From the back cover:

“It begins with an amazing revelation: Not a single legal prostitute in Nevada has contracted HIV since testing began in 1986. Why? Harvard medical student Alexa Albert traveled to Nevada in search of answers. Gaining unprecedented access to the world where the women share their experiences with unexpected candor. There’s Dinah, Mustang’s oldest prostitute, who turned her first trick at age fifty-one. And Savannah, a woman who views her work as a ‘healing’ social service for needy men.

“Nevada’s legal brothels are an incredibly rich environment for examining some of this nation’s thorniest issues. From problems of class and race to the meaning of family, honor and justice – all are found within this complex and singular microcosm. And in a country where prejudice is a dirty word – but not as dirty as hooker – these social issues are compounded and deepened by the stifling stigma that has always plagued the profession. But in the end, all of Mustang’s working girls are just women trying to earn their way to happiness…”

Review:

Albert’s writing is dissertation-dry, lacking the flare of more artistic-minded authors, but given her thematic slant and subject, it fits. Her journalistic language lends a veracity to the tales she tells about Nevada’s history, the lives of the brothel owners and their workers.

Albert occasionally asks provocative questions, spiking this otherwise light, sometimes sad read. Good book: solid, informative and entertaining, in an unpretentious way.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Crash, by J.G. Ballard

(pb; 1973)

From the back cover:

"In this hallucinatory novel, the car provides the hellish tableau in which Vaughn, a 'T.V. scientist' turned 'nightmare angel of the highways,' experiments with erotic atrocities among auto crash victims, each more sinister than the last. James Ballard, his friend and fellow obsessive, tells the story of this twisted visionary as he careens rapidly toward his own demise in an intentionally orchestrated car crash with Elizabeth Taylor.

"An underground classic, Crash explores the disturbing potentialities of contemporary society's increasing dependency on technology as intermediary in human relations."

Review:

Crash is focused (even as it feverishly rambles), deliciously perverse, poetically single-minded and made me view fellow motorists in a fresh and alarming way. Because of this book, I no longer view roads and streets as mere thoroughfares. They are more than that: they are battlegrounds where our desires, psychological damage and metal meet -- or could meet, in the Ballard/Vaughn sense of the world.

I've read books written in this fervid, stream-of-consciousness vein before, but few writers have maintained that grim, brilliant edge the way Crash does.

Own, don't borrow, this.

The resulting film, released stateside on March 21, 1997, was directed by David Cronenberg.

James Spader played James Ballard. Holly Hunter played Helen Remington. Elias Koteas played Vaughn. Deborah Kara Unger played Catherine Ballard. Rosanna Arquette played Gabrielle.

Side note: Chuck Palahniuk's Rant explored a similar-yet-differentiated theme. If you like Crash, there's a good chance you'll like Rant.

<em>Phantom</em> by Jo Nesbø

(hb;  2011, 2012: ninth novel in the Inspector Harry Hole series. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett .) From the back cover...