Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Film Review: The Last Station

The Last StationThe Last Station directed by Michael Hoffman (Egoli Tossell Film and Zephyr Films, R for strong sexual content, 112 minutes)

Starring Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, and Christopher Plummer.

The Last Station documents the final years of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his wife, Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren). The plot centers on Tolstoy’s later-life philosophies such as nonviolent resistance and social justice. Most of Tolstoy’s closest advisors are pressuring the old author to redraft his will in order to give his publications to public domain. Sofya, however, becomes paranoid concerning these idealistic philosophies and worries that losing copyrights to her husband’s work would equal a return to poverty. Tolstoy’s closest confidant, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) hires a Tolstoyan – one who follows the teachings of Tolstoy – named Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) to assist Leo and keep a close watch on Sofya.

As the biopic unfolds, Bulgakov befriends both Leo and Sofya Tolstoy. He learns that Leo is not a very good Tolstoyan and that Sofya’s criminal sin against the Tolstoyan movement is loving her family. The contentious moments in Leo and Sofya’s marriage center around money and the security it brings. This concept raises a big question: How much should one generously give to the poor of society? Clearly, it is morally reprehensible to give nothing and succumb to self-righteous greed. However, is it also a morally questionable position to give everything away? What responsibility does one have to his or her family?
The Last Station vividly portrays the turmoil of people trying to live at extremes on both ends. It seems both Leo and Sofya have elements of truth in their positions. On Leo’s side, he comprehends the Gospel truth of giving to the poor. On Sofya’s side, she sees the ludicrousness of giving all the assets away so that the Tolstoy family becomes the very thing that it is trying to correct.

For me, truth lies somewhere in the middle. Giving to the poor ought to result in some sort of sacrifice. In other words, generous giving needs to be felt in the pocketbook. If the end of the month comes and you give 10% without an afterthought, perhaps you are not giving sacrificially. However, if you give all that you have every month and allow debt to cascade down on you in such a way that you can ill-afford basic needs, perhaps you are giving too much. It seems, however, that most of us reside in the first category giving less than 10%. Perhaps we all could become better Tolstoyans.

The Last Station is beautifully filmed, well-written, and marvelously acted. It’s a slow paced drama with an immense subject matter. If you are interested in Leo Tolstoy, the Tolstoyan movement, or the difficulties of monetary generosity, I recommend that you watch this movie.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: The Namesake

The Namesake: A NovelThe Namesake: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 304 pp)

Born in London to Bengali immigrants, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to the United States at the young age of 3. Her first published work, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. In 2007, Hollywood adapted The Namesake into a feature film.  A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Lahiri is a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

Home for the Holidays?

Thanksgiving introduces an exciting portion of the year. I love sleeping in, wearing pajamas into the living room, and seeing a football game on the television. The turkey is already cooking in the oven and my stomach reminds me that I will enjoy feasting with family later in the day. I really enjoy watching football on Thanksgiving; my wife and sister, however, want to watch the parade and they jokingly call me a name, “turd” let’s say for sake of an illustration. These circumstances define my particular family. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, the Namesake, exhibits the emotions of a particular family existing in an unfamiliar culture.

The Namesake follows an Indian family (the Gangulis) transplanted from Calcutta to the suburbs of Boston. Over a thirty year period, Lahiri develops a subtle storyline around a husband, wife, and the turmoil of their second generation children as they attempt to exist in an American culture while clinging to the slivers of their ancestral Bengali culture. In a sense, the previous cultural traditions and expectations of Calcutta produce a perpetual curiosity in those associated with the family. Lahira writes,

“For being a foreigner, Ashima [the mother and wife of the family] is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect” (49-50).

We Are Named, Then We Are Known

In addition to the unhinged character of living in an alien culture, The Namesake portrays the tortured nature of Gogol, the son of the Indian transplants.  Lahiri exquisitely explains the importance of names in the early chapters of the book. Simply stated, each person in Bengali culture receives a formal name and a family name. The formal name is used in professional and formal settings, while the family name is reserved for family and friends. In Gogol’s case, the formal name – typically given by an elder figure in the family – had yet to finish its expedition through the postal system when the Ganguli family became ready to be released from the hospital. For this reason, Gogol’s parents provided his family name, “Gogol,” on the official birth certificate. This seemingly small oversight provides Gogol with a lifetime of turmoil. In naming the central protagonist by his family name, Lahiri invites the reader into the Ganguli family.

We Are What We Eat

Additionally, The Namesake develops its fascinating story around the convergence of culture. The author illustrates customs through the consumption of food. Each special occasion offers the Ganguli family with an opportunity to host other Bengali immigrants. These instances are occasions for feasts! Lahiri spends pages depicting the preparations the Ganguli family takes in order to facilitate such banquets. On the other hand, Gogol’s time spent in romantic relationships during his time spent in New York City portrays his Americanized culture. He eats well, sometimes drinks too much, and partakes in the popular cuisine of the city. Therefore, Lahiri creates a dichotomy through food between the culture of Gogol’s family life and the culture of his social life.

Although my experience at Thanksgiving in no way resembles the familial occurrences in The Namesake, Lahiri’s simple and engaging writing style invites you to be a part a particular family. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: Flickering Pixels

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your FaithFlickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith


By Shane Hipps (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 208 pp)

Before committing to professional vocational ministry, Shane Hipps held a position with Porsche Cars North America working on communications strategy. After a stint in the corporate world, he received a master of divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. Hipps pastored Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona, before he became teaching pastor of Mars Hill Grand Rapids in 2010.

Little Dots Comprise the Image

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines a pixel as any of the small discrete elements that together constitute an image. The pixel is a building block, a portion of the larger whole. Without pixels, no image exists.

Similarly, people are the building blocks of culture and society as a whole. If the entire population of one country moves to another continent, no culture remains. In Flickering Pixels, Shane Hipps attempts to break down technology in order to analyze its building blocks and its effects on society.

With his prior career in advertising providing a unique perspective on the relationship between media and culture, Hipps writes Flickering Pixels in a skeptical voice. The basic thesis found in these chapters is a request to pause, take a step back, and evaluate the way media and technology influence our culture and more specifically our faith.


Technology's Relationship With Culture

Although not evident in everyday life, technology continually reshapes culture. The Greatest Generation remembers life before and after the television set; Baby Boomers consider life before landing on the moon different from life after the moon landing; Generation X defines itself in relation to the computer, and the Millennial Generation identifies life in pre- and post-iPhone terms.

Looking back at how society functioned decades earlier provides evidence for changes in culture, but we do not often consider how technology has altered culture over the years. For example, text messaging enabled people to send quick and efficient messages to each other. This technology, however, included some unintended consequences: the rise of text messaging prompted the rise of chat speak (e.g., Lol, wut, 2kewl4u, rotfl).


Technology's Relationship With Faith

Just as technology creates inadvertent outcomes for culture as a whole, Hipps narrows the focus to effects of technology on the Christian faith. Referencing the influence of the printing press on the Reformation, the author contends that technology has been shaping Christian tradition for millennia.

More specifically, when the printing press provided Bibles in the vernacular of the common people, the way culture viewed Scripture fundamentally changed. Whereas stained-glass windows were previously the medium of choice when depicting gospel messages to the masses, the printing press created access to the logically linear arguments of Paul. Exchanging icons for a text, those Protestants participating in the Reformation paved the way for a Christianity defined by logic and reason.

As Hipps contends, since the presentation of the gospel through technological means carries residual effects, it is important to evaluate its impact. Should churches simulcast sermons on video screens? On the one hand, simulcasting offers the benefits of increasing the number of people capable of hearing the message. On the other hand, presenting a sermon on video creates a pressure to place unwanted preference on the appearance of the pastor and his or her surroundings.


To What Extent Should We Accept Technology in Our Faith?

Even though I find value in stepping back and continually evaluating the effects of technology on my faith, I am afraid that Flickering Pixels reads as a warning against the uses of technology in the church — as if a wrong technological step in the modern church leads to heresy.

When Hipps references his previous career in marketing, he seems to be ashamed of his actions. His starting position is that his work of marketing luxury automobiles was morally wrong. In my opinion, the author seems to associate the use of technology to promote Christianity in the same skeptical light.

As a pixel is the building block for an image, perhaps technology is a building block for successfully sharing the Christian faith. Although we should avoid uncritically accepting technology in our faith and cultures, it is important that we avoid the overreaction of skeptically dismissing technology.

Despite Hipps' cynicism of technology, Flickering Pixels is a short, quick, and thought-provoking book worth reading.

Originally published at the Center for Integrity in Business.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. Updated Edition 312 pp)

Anthony Bourdain, born in 1956, attended Vassar College and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. He has worked as a cook and chef in many institutions strewn across the New York City map. Bourdain contributes articles to the Times, New York Times, Observer, the Face, Scotland on Sunday, and Food Arts Magazine. An addition to Kitchen Confidential, he has written two crime novels – Gone Bamboo and Bone in the Throat. Bourdain was the executive chef at Brassiere Les Halles and is currently the host of the Travel Channel program: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Bourdain resides in New York City.

Some Conversations

Reading a book is fun. If not, why would so many people do it? Am I right? In all seriousness, reading provides people with simple and complex pleasures. One person might become enamored with an illustrative setting; another may empathize with the struggles of a protagonist. In non-fiction literature, a certain power exists in the interaction between writer and reader. In other words, it is as if reading a book transforms the countless pages of text into a lively conversation. Kitchen Confidential exudes a conversational sense that I am in fact sitting down in a greasy spoon with Anthony Bourdain, discussing his life in the culinary business.

And what a life it is. If you believe that the restaurant kitchen is a simple and clean paradise, I cannot stress enough that you ought to avoid this book. Bourdain is loud, rude, and honest about his experiences in his industry.  The hands preparing your food have a story and your probably do not want to know it.

Hell’s Kitchen

Bourdain’s straight-forward storytelling displays his magnetic personality. His stories simultaneously exalt and demonize the kitchen as if it was ethereal and evil. Bourdain convinces me that my restaurant visits should never conclude in the ordering chicken or fish on a Monday; he reveals that my carefully cooked dish passed through the hands of undocumented immigrants; he also divulges the dark secret about my perfectly cooked sourdough bread: it was crafted by the hands of a drug addict. “Never fear,” he hypothetically declares! Your meal tastes great! Plus, Bourdain controls his kitchen like a demanding demigod – although nowhere near as perfect.

Concerning his operation, Bourdain proudly proclaims,

“But God protects fools and drunks, and we were certainly both foolish and drunk much of the time” (51).

Revisionist History or You Didn’t Think I’d Try Another Pun Did You?

Despite his raw and gritty style, Bourdain’s tome is inconsistent. The book feels like an autobiography as it flows in chronological order, but the writing lacks description when it moves from era to era. I found myself at times imagining Bourdain in a specific era and suddenly he mentions using a cell phone or laptop.  The images created in my head around his story begin to feel false as I edit them into the correct era.

However, Kitchen Confidential provides an informative view into an industry typically concealed behind the walls of customer service.  If you wish to maintain the illusory perception that the chef stands behind the curtains focusing on the finishing touches of your blandly ordered meal, I guarantee this book is not for you. On the other hand, if you enjoy No Reservations , wish to sit down with Bourdain at a greasy spoon, and are prepared for his verbal onslaught, I recommend this book.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Television Show Review: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead: Season OneThe Walking Dead produced by Frank Darabont, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert, Robert Kirkman, and Charles H. Eglee (Circle of Confusion and Valhalla Motion Pictures, airs Sunday nights on AMC)

Starring Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Steven Yeun, and Chandler Riggs.

In an effort to proclaim full disclosure, I must admit that I am not much of a zombie fan.

This sub-genre of horror has always seemed low budget, poorly written, and weakly acted. Zombie films typically depict the survival instinct at a basic level. Although this theme is entertaining on a “what if” level, the zombie theme is incapable of constructing the dramatic subtleties that differentiate fantastic movies from standard run-of-the-mill productions.

Where Are We?

Last night’s premier of AMC’s the Walking Dead, however, destroys my preconceived notions about zombie narratives. The story begins with the protagonist, Sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), receiving the damaging end of a bullet that results in a comatose state. Deputy Grimes awakes to the blinking lights of an abandoned hospital. This portion of the narrative leads me to the first differentiating factor in this show from other zombie stories: the apocalyptic infestation already occurred. Similar to I am Legend, the rise of the walking dead is only influential to the extent that it effects the current time. In other words, the Walking Dead focuses on the result of the zombie inflicted world rather than the cause of it.

Later in the pilot episode and after Deputy Grimes realizes the drastic differences in the new world he inhabits, he begins an expedition to Atlanta, the urban hub of the region. Having heard that the military commandeered Atlanta as a safe spot from zombies and infection, Grimes travels toward the city broadcasting on emergency channels in hopes of connecting with other human beings. Unbeknownst to him, Grimes’ broadcasts are received by a remnant hiding in the woods. Sadly, the group’s pleas for Grimes to avoid Atlanta fall on deaf ears as he treks toward a city not blockaded for safety but instead overrun by zombies.

Can’t Tell the City from the Woods

I found this urban versus agrarian theme fascinating. By densely placing danger at the heart of an urban center and simultaneously suggesting that wilderness is a refuge, The Walking Dead critiques the human tendency to congregate in urban areas. The density of a population forces it to rely heavily on each other for production. One person might boast a prodigious talent for clothes making, while another might grow the best apples. If each person agrees to specialize and then trade the extras, economic theory proclaims that the society is capable of producing more. However, such production trade-offs force society into dependency. If one section fails, the whole economy falls apart.

In contrast, the pastoral view of wilderness transforms human dependency to a reliance on nature. The post-apocalyptic world of the Walking Dead infers the dangers of urbanized human culture and the positive qualities of an agrarian lifestyle.

Episode one of the Walking Dead intrigued me both for its starting point in a world already broken and also its depiction of urban and rural relationships. I excitedly await the second episode and recommend the series to you provided you can stomach the zombie theme.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thoughts on Women and Literature

A couple weeks ago, I happened upon this article at the Huffington Post. In summary, the author of the article interviewed two popular novelists – Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner­ – about literary fiction and the critically praised novel, Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Both Picoult and Weiner criticize publishers and reviewers alike for exalting a novel about a broken family while avoiding similarly-themed novels by female authors. Simply put, when men write about family, their books are considered literary fiction; when women write about family, their books are labeled romance.

Looking at my library, it is extremely male dominant. My library coupled with Picoult and Weiner’s revelation makes me particularly troubled. I want to read well-written books no matter the race, creed, or gender of the author. Yet the way publishers promote their books, I have subconsciously gravitated to the “literary fiction” genre which is dominated by men. When I observe my tendencies in music, my tastes are much more evenly divided highlighting both men and women artists. I believe the equal division is a result of music being marketed to a broad audience instead of being promoted to a targeted audience. Thus I believe that novels written by women sparsely populate my bookshelf not because I have no desire to read them, but because I am unable to differentiate between a crappy romance novel and a well-written novel.

Thus, I believe it is time to change my tactics. What are your favorite books written by female authors? I would love to put them on my wish list.