Monday, April 30, 2012

Book Group: In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences by Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 2007; originally published in 1965. 343 pp)

A Brief Recap 
“Mister Clutter was amused. ‘I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,’ he said. Then, touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last.” (13). 
Reading like a precursor to one of the many CSI crime television series, the quote above summarizes the feel of In Cold Blood incredibly well, a novel where both innocence and brutality collide, where beauty meets tragedy. 

In Cold Blood highlights the grisly murders of the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas. Four people with fatal shotgun wounds to the head. No apparent motive. No apparent suspect.

A lead appears only after a tip from a prison inmate. The inmate, having worked for Mr. Clutter on the farm, shared stories of the rich farmer with two convicts. In typical prison grandeur, these inmates—the prurient Dick and the unstable Perry—boasted of the eventual robbery and murder of the farming family.

With a lead, Dick and Perry soon find themselves caught. After a quick trial and verdict, the pair resides on death row with the gallows looming.

A Nonfiction Novel 

Andrew: In Cold Blood reads like fiction but presents reality. What were your thoughts, Donovan, on the truth-value of this book?

Donovan: For starters, the nonfiction nature of In Cold Blood makes for a frightening tale. It is easy to set aside violent fictional stories due to the widely understood falseness of a tale. However, the Clutter family senselessly died in real life at the hands of Dick and Perry.
“Somehow he haunts me the most, Kenyon does. I think it’s because he was the most recognizable, the one that looked most like himself—even though he’d been shot in the face, directly, head-on. He was wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, and he was barefoot—as though he’d dressed in a hurry, just put on the first thing that came to hand. His head was propped by a couple pillows, like they’d been stuffed under him to make an easier target” (64).
I find affinity with an historical individual. Just as I breath, think, eat, and sleep, so too did Herb, Bonnie, Kenyon, and Nancy Clutter. For this reason, the grisly end of this family conjures horror because I can imagine myself in their shoes.

Donovan: How about you, Andrew. Any thoughts on this “non-fiction novel”?

Andrew: It should be known that Capote wrote In Cold Blood as a literary experiment, as an attempt to see if he could write a nonfiction “novel”, one that read like fiction, but was, in fact, nonfiction at its core. As a result of his experiment, it is incredibly hard for the reader to decide whether or not In Cold Blood is a journalistic report, an actual novel, or something in between.

The Purpose of Setting 

Andrew: Donovan, you mention the real-life nature of the case as frightening. Does Capote add anything else to the novel to instill fear in the reader?

Donovan: Certainly. Another cause for horror resides in Capote’s mundane portrayal of murder in the book. Capote masterfully interweaves non sequiturs about life in rural Kansas. As a result, the horrific actions of two individuals settle among descriptions of mundane tasks.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff
For example, Capote depicts Alvin Dewey, the FBI the investigator on the case, meandering often around the crime scene:
“The detective moved from room to room. He had toured the house many times; indeed, he went out there almost every day, and, in one sense, could be said to find these visits pleasurable, for the place, unlike his own home, or the sheriff’s office, with its hullabaloo, was peaceful. The telephones, their wires still severed, were silent. The great quiet of the prairies surrounded him. He could sit in Herb’s parlor rocking chair, and rock and think” (152-153).
Instead of a yellow-taped crime scene, the detective explores the Clutter household finding the serenity of the Kansas countryside pleasurable.

Donovan: What are your thoughts on In Cold Blood’s setting?

Andrew: In all honesty, Donovan, I disagree. I think Capote meant to use the setting as a contrast to the murders.

In creative prose, it seems as though Capote made some artistic choices within the book. The setting, true to reality, is in a beautiful place, which he intentionally juxtaposes against the brutal murder of an entire family. The book begins and ends with striking descriptions of the landscape; the serenity of the plains becomes an unlikely setting for an eerie tragedy.
“This hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was among themselves” (88).
Fragmenting the community, the murder sows seeds of extreme suspicion among the entirety of the previously peaceful and placid town of Holcomb. Much like in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the reader is able to see their allegorical fall, where sin enters the community, and the first time the community is forced to reconcile with the presence evil.

Wherefore Art Thou, Protagonist? 

Andrew: Donovan, did you find a protagonist in this book?

Donovan: Not really. In fact, it felt like Capote worked tirelessly to keep everyone situated in a moral gray area.

Truman Capote
Despite the clear evidence linking Dick and Perry to the murders, Capote refuses to let the citizens off the hook. As pious Christians opposed to capital punishment, the citizens hypocritically seek retributive justice.

Perry, the murderer, notes:
“Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom” (289).
Donovan: Were you able to find a protagonist, Andrew?

Andrew: It’s incredibly hard for me to pinpoint a definitive “protagonist” as a result of the great suspicions in Holcomb. Because everyone is a suspect, it was hard for me to root for any one person. It could be argued that Alvin Dewey, the FBI agent in charge of the murder investigation is the best protagonist, but it’s hard to say. 

Perry Edward Smith and Dick Hickock are assumed to be the murderers (the antagonists), but Dewey assumes it must be someone close to the family. However, just as it seems that the murder investigation is going nowhere, Dewey finds the truth.
“The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.” (245)
What’s truly interesting about the novel is that Dewey finds it nearly impossible to condemn the two men responsible for killing an entire family, as they have also suffered in other ways. To Perry and Dick, the Clutters represent what they never had in life, and though they liked the family, they still murdered them.
“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat” (244).
The murders were not due to the hatred of the family, but rather because the family represented everything the two gentlemen could not attain in life. Dewey offers no absolute moral judgment on any scenario. Dewey finds it difficult to press condemnation, perhaps because the novel is set in paradise. Because of the easygoing nature and the near perfection of the town, it is difficult for any of the characters to recognize evil.

Has the Jury Found a Verdict? 

Andrew: Any concluding thoughts, Donovan?

Donovan: I enjoyed In Cold Blood, Andrew. I would recommend it. For starters, the book brings clarity to Capote, a critically acclaimed film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman based on the making of this book. In present times, In Cold Blood might not seem like a genre-defying masterpiece. But it was ahead of its time.

Donovan: What did you think, Andrew?

Andrew: Overall, In Cold Blood was thrilling. At times, it was a slow read, but the suspicion among the characters made it incredibly intriguing. Reading like an NCIS or CSI investigation, it was simply fun. I think that Capote succeeded in writing a nonfiction “novel”, as it read well, sounded like a genuine story, and kept me entertained as a reader. I think Capote deserves high praise for bringing a real-life event into a brilliant light.

Donovan’s Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Andrew’s Verdict: 4 out of 5
Truman Capote, born Truman Persons, was an American novelist best known for Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood. Capote died in 1984.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) by Suzanne Collins (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 2009. 391 pp)

Suzanne Collins began her writing career in children’s television. While working for Nickelodeon, Collins wrote for many shows, chief among them Clarissa Explains it All and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. Eventually, Collins moved to children’s literature writing a five-part series, The Underland Chronicles. Her Hunger Games trilogy, however, has received high acclaim, and the first book has been adapted into a major motion picture. Collins lives in Connecticut with her family. 

*Spoiler Alert for Book One in Effect Throughout this Review*

Book Two

The Hunger Games and its subsequent Catching Fire is the latest craze among teens. The Hunger Games is even being taught at my school, where, to both my delight and chagrin students are now reading during my classes (not the appropriate time to do so). I, too, have fallen in love with the phenomena, as I find the plot exhilarating. However, the main character, Katniss, annoys me to no end.

Katniss, now the victor of the most recent Hunger Games, wishes to forget the gore she encountered. Understandably distraught, she now has to perform a publicity tour throughout the districts, beginning in district eleven and concluding at her own district twelve.
“If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol’s way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol’s power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year, I am one of the stars of the show. I will have to travel from district to district, to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed...” (3-4).
Katniss is a believable character, to Collins’ merit. However, my problem has always been (and this is a personal view) she is just a little too whiny. Katniss never willingly seems to kill people in the Hunger Games as a survival instinct. Rather, she only killed her competitors when someone else was in danger, when someone else’s life was on the line. I believe, realistically, she would be much more brutal, as the instinct to survive is stronger than what Katniss portrays. Moreover, the crowds, viewing this spectacle on the television, would undoubtedly side with Katniss as the merciful competitor, as she didn’t kill willingly, only doing so as a last resort. The crowd wouldn’t look down on her and loathe her as Katniss seems to believe.

Repercussions and Self-Loathing

Nonetheless, Katniss feels the repercussions from her activities during the last Hunger Games, especially in regard to winning with Peeta, her fake love interest during the games. 
“The full impact of what he’s saying hits me. I will never have a life with Gale, even if I want to. I will never be allowed to live alone. I will have to be forever in love with Peeta. The Capitol will insist on it. I’ll have a few years maybe, because I’m still only sixteen, to stay with my mother and Prim...if I want to keep those I love alive and stay alive myself [,] I’ll have to marry Peeta" (44).
Continuing on her path of self-loathing and depression, Katniss takes her victory at the games incredibly hard.
“I’m selfish. I’m a coward. I’m the kind of girl who, when she might actually be of use, would run to stay alive and leave those who couldn’t follow to suffer and die...No wonder I won the Games. No decent person ever does” (117).
I understand killing is hard, killing would obviously cause self-doubt, repercussions, and some serious depression. But, I think that Katniss is simply too whiny...too much of a teenager for some readers to root for. Her inner monologues become far too annoying after some time, much like listening to a drop of water leaking from the faucet.

Still Compelling

Despite my annoyances, I still find the plot of Catching Fire to be compelling, and in my mind, that’s what saves the trilogy. Suzanne Collins certainly knows how to grip the reader’s attention, she places plot twists conveniently at the end of each chapter to keep the reader wondering “what happens next?” Even though the book is flawed, I still think Catching Fire is worth a read, especially if you enjoyed the movie or the previous book.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

What do you think? Do you find Katniss to be a believable and compelling character? What about the plot? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Book Review: The Elements of Content Strategy

The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane (New York: A Book Apart, 2011. 86 pp)

Erin Kissane is a content strategist and editor based in New York City and Portland, Oregon. She was an editor at A List Apart magazine for nearly ten years, and has also been a freelance book editor and the editorial director of Happy Cog Studios. In 2011, she joined content strategy consultancy Brain Traffic, where she leads content projects and eats cake.

Now More than Ever, College Is the Best Time in Life 

Have you seen the job statistics lately? More to the point, have you seen the employment rates for recent college graduates? What about liberal arts majors in particular? A study of 2009 college graduates finds 25.2% of liberal arts majors unemployed after graduation. Those humanities majors employed often found their jobs low paying and college degrees unnecessary.

For years, the general assumption was: get a degree; get a job. Well the current economic context suggests a shift for college students. Either stay in school and earn more degrees, or major in a “marketable” field like accounting, business management, or engineering.

Could there be a third way? In The Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane outlines content strategy as an emerging profession.

All Hail King Internet 

In case you haven’t noticed, the Internet runs the world these days. While some residual value remains in businesses running brick-and-mortar stores, the Internet is now the marketplace, a virtual mall so to speak.

With the rise of Internet communications comes the necessity of content strategy. Kissane writes,
“Content strategy is rising because organizations all over the world have begun to realize that they desperately need it to handle their rapidly expanding online communications” (2).
Not only do individual businesses need content to communicate with potential customers, Internet surfers desire content. Blogs and social media have replaced the days of the newspaper as the arbiter of information. Content, then, becomes the connection between a business and its potential customers.
“Content is perfectly appropriate for users when it makes them feel like geniuses on critically important missions, offering them precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form” (5).
If content bridges the gap between businesses and customers, the job of a content strategist is to connect these two parties by facilitating a web space meeting the needs of both parties.

The Content Strategist: An Amalgamate Profession 

Interestingly, Kissane breaks down the job of the content strategist into 4 separate professions:
“Though it lacks a goat head, content strategy also has a legacy. Several, in fact. And each has plenty to teach us. A complete genetic breakdown would require a separate book, so for now, let’s consider the four most influential fields: editorial work, curatorial work, marketing and persuasion, and information science” (16).
Editorial and marketing work appear self-evident. In order to create compelling content one needs to both remain consistent in formatting and grammar, and also write persuasively. In fact, information science, too, makes sense given its role in effectively storing and retrieving information.

But the curator field piques my interest. Curators conjure a vision of uptight tour guides in museums and overly informed janitors dusting ancient relics. But a curator, in truth, balances the job of an administrator and an artist. A curator not only knows what sine qua non forms of art an audience wants to see, s/he will also apprehend the need for benches and restrooms through the museum.

“On the web, we deal with each other in heavily mediated ways, but we’re still primates. We need accommodations for the thousand disabilities that we experience; ways of marking and saving information for later so we can take breaks; ways of skipping through content when we’re in a hurry; friendly orientation and navigation aids; access to real human assistance, via live help, telephone, email, or any other reasonable channel; and the ability to consume content on the devices and in the locations of our choice” (27).

Are You Looking for a Job?

A veritable mix of editor, curator, marketer, and scientist, the content strategist runs the engine of the business website. More importantly for those unemployed college graduates, a content strategist requires the skills of liberal arts majors.

An emerging field in a marketplace still suffering growing pangs, the world needs more content strategists. Look for entry-level jobs in web editorial, online marketing, or information management. You might soon find a lucrative career in content strategy. If you want to learn more, read The Elements of Content Strategy.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Are you unemployed and seeking a job? Have you considered content strategy? What drawbacks could arise in this profession?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Review: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings: Book Two of a Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (New York: Bantum Books, 1999. 768 pp)

George R. R. Martin is an American author and screenwriter of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Born in New Jersey, Martin earned a B.S. and M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University. He began writing fiction in the early 1970s with his first works earning him a Hugo and Nebula award. In the 1980s, he began writing in Hollywood for the Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. Martin is best known for his critically acclaimed epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which was developed into Game of Thrones, an HBO television series.

*Spoiler Alert for Book One in Effect Throughout this Review*

A War Battered Landscape

As a giant civil war plagues the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a new claim to the throne at King’s Landing seems to arise every few pages. Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon, Robb Stark, and Balon Grejoy all readies for war. Across the sea, Daenreys Targaryen prepares her journey across a massive desert with her new dragonlings in tow so that she too may one day take the throne of Westeros as (in her view) rightful heir to the throne.

To Seek a Sign

Because of all the uncertainty in the lands, the rulers seek signs to affirm their desire to rule Westeros. Joffrey Baratheon, a boy of thirteen, is currently occupying the throne, and a comet begins to grace the sky. 
“See how it flames across the sky today on His Grace’s name day, as if the gods themselves had raised a banner in his honor. The smallfolk have named it King Joffrey’s Comet...I’ve heard servants calling it the Dragon’s Tail. King Joffrey sits where Aegon the Dragon once sat, in the castle built by his son...He is the dragon’s heir—and crimson is the color of House Lannister, another sign. This comet is sent to herald Joffrey’s ascent to the throne, I have no doubt. It means that he will triumph over his enemies” (28).
Joffrey, arguably the least likable character in the novel due to his impetuous nature, lack of diplomacy, and overall surliness, is also unliked by many in the novel. Because Joffrey, by birth, is both Lannister, whose sigil is crimson, and Baratheon, whose sigil is golden, some think and hope the sign isn’t for him.

A Comet of Uncertainty

Arya, daughter of the now-beheaded Ned Stark, only finds danger and uncertainty in the new times. On the road as a vagabond of sorts, bound for service at the wall, she feels out of place. A girl merely ten years of age, she is scared, and the comet means little.
“One time Arya woke in the dark, frightened for no reason she could name. Above, the Red Swoard shared the sky with half a thousand stars. The night seemed oddly quiet to her, though she could hear Yoren’s muttered snores, the crackle of the fire, even the muffled stirrings of the donkeys. Yet somehow it felt as though the world were holding its breath, and the silence made her shiver. She went back to sleep clutching [her sword]”(62).
Perhaps the comet only heralds a time of uncertainty as the world holds its breath, waiting for the dust to settle, for the war to pass, for peace to once again grace the land.  Perhaps it won’t be peace that graces Westeros, perhaps the comet only brings war.
“Pale flames licked at the grey sky. Dark smoke rose, twisting and curling. When the wind pushed it toward them, men blinked and wept and rubbed their eyes. Allard turned his head away, coughing and cursing. A taste of things to come, thought Davos. Many and more would burn before this war was done” (113).
A Comet for Direction

Daenerys, former Khaleesi (queen) of the Dothraki tribe across the waters from Westeros, also hopes to one day ascend the throne and rule the seven kingdoms. Since she ventured into a burning funeral pyre as she watched her husband burn into the next life and emerged unscathed, she has established quite the following.
“The Dothraki named the comet shierak quiya, the Bleeding Star. The old men muttered that it omened ill, but Daenerys Targaryen had seen it first on the night she had burned Khal Drogo, the night her dragons had awakened. It is the herald of my coming, she told herself as she gazed up into the night sky with wonder in her heart. The gods have sent it to show me the way” (142).
Pointing the way across the huge desert, Daenerys hopes that she will find her way to Westeros. The comet is a hopeful sign for her, but others don’t find it so hopeful.

A Comet of Corruption

Tyrion Lannister, uncle to Lord Joffrey, sees the comet as a sign pointing toward the corruption of the seven kingdoms, of its people, and of the current occupant of the throne.
“‘Corruption!’ [a] man cried shrilly. ‘There is the warning! Behold the Father’s scourge!’ He pointed at the fuzzy red wound in the sky. From this vantage, the distant castle on Aegon’s High Hill was directly behind him, with the comet hanging forebodingly over its towers. A clever choice of stage, Tyrion reflected. ‘We have become swollen, bloated foul. Brother couples with sister in the bed of kings, and the fruit of their incest capers in his place to the piping of a twisted little monkey demon. Highborn ladies fornicate with fools and give birth to monsters! Even the High Septon has forgotten the gods! He bathes in scented waters and grows fat on lark and lamprey while his people starve! Pride comes before prayer, maggots rule our castles, and gold is all...but no more! The Rotten Summer is at an end, and the Whoremonger King is brought low!’” (239).
Martin does well to include these signs in A Clash of Kings. Through the comet he shows how uncertain things are in this world. Perhaps mimicking real life, he shows how often we seek signs in products of natural causes. Maybe the sign is right only for one person. The sign is one of many literary techniques Martin uses within A Clash of Kings, and it provides great depth and meaning to the novel overall. I think you should definitely read A Game of Thrones and watch the HBO series as well; it has much to offer.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

What do you think about The Game of Thrones? Do you enjoy the use of omen that Martin employs in the novel? Share your thoughts below!
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Book Review: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings: Book Two of a Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (New York: Bantam Books, 1999. 768 pp)

George R. R. Martin is an American author and screenwriter of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Born in New Jersey, Martin earned a B.S. and M.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University. He began writing fiction in the early 1970s with his first works earning him a Hugo and Nebula award. In the 1980s, he began writing in Hollywood for the Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast. Martin is best known for his critically acclaimed epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which was developed into Game of Thrones, an HBO television series.

*Spoiler Alert for Book One in Effect throughout this Review*

The Female Lead 

What constitutes a strong female character? Does she need to act “masculine,” dominating the fields of battle, outwitting her male counterparts, and saving the day? Or is a strong female character reserved, capable of reading scenarios, understanding social settings, and leading a household?

I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions. I do, however, enjoy the female characters in A Clash of Kings, the second installment in George R. R. Martin’s epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

The book begins where A Game of Thrones concludes.

Panoramic Warfare 

Civil war plagues the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. In every corner, an army declares their respective leader the claimant to the throne. While Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon, and Robb Stark prepare for war, Balon Greyjoy, the self-proclaimed king of the Iron Islands aims to take the northern territories of Westeros. Simultaneously, Jon Snow marches beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch hoping to better understand the potential threat of Mance Rayder and his armies in the far north.

Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen meanders eastward nurturing her baby dragons and raising an army with the hope of retaking Westeros.

With a myriad of moving parts, there is little wonder why A Clash of Kings tips the scales at over 700 pages. World building depends upon verbosity.

Grace Among the Bone, Pulp, and Gristle 

But the females stuck in a male-dominated world interest me most in this narrative.

In A Clash of Kings, we find Arya Stark pretending to be a boy as she flees King’s Landing. To hide her gender, Arya must “make water” in the woods and exude a vicious “masculine” personality to hide her true self from enemy troops. Arya’s life depends on the denial of her gender.

The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros
Catelyn, the widowed Stark matriarch, feels helpless as the war unfolds around her. Even though she continues to perform crucial tasks in the war effort, she feels the pull of home—Winterfell—and the motherly duties of raising children.

As an illustrative contrapuntal character to Catelyn, Brienne, a sworn knight, promises to protect Catelyn.
“Brienne fell in beside her, silent. It is simpler for her, Catelyn thought with a pang of envy. She was like a man in that. For men the answer was always the same, and never farther away than the nearest sword. For a woman, a mother, the way was stonier and harder to know” (495).
A big-boned and hard-featured character, Brienne rejects her noble upbringing as a lady replacing it with the brutality of knighthood.

The Queen Regent 

Even though the previous characters intrigue, my favorite character relationship in A Clash of Kings goes to Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark. As Queen Regent, Cersei effectively rules Westeros for her teenaged son. Sansa, betrothed to Joffrey despite her “traitorous” father, lives in King’s Landing existing in a careful balance between enslaved and a noble lady. Sansa, as the sister of Robb Stark, the King of the North, carries immeasurable value as a hostage in the war effort. Yet she remains betrothed to King Joffrey.

Throughout the novel, Cersei communicates the tenets of womanhood to the frightened Stark girl.
“’Tears,’ she said scornfully to Sansa as the woman was led from the hall. ‘The woman’s weapon, my lady mother used to call them. The man’s weapon is a sword. And that tells us all you need to know, doesn’t it’” (637)?
Martin depicts Cersei as a power-hungry harridan. If Cersei were a man, the Iron Throne of Westeros would be hers in a heartbeat it would seem. As a woman, her ambition must remain cloaked. Martin potently describes Cersei’s vitriolic nature:
“’When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. ‘What do I get?’ I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger philly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood” (639).
One’s sexual constitution most certainly dictates the path of life in A Clash of Kings, much like in real life. Even though life in Westeros often depends on becoming more masculine, Martin includes some strong feminine characters. While men parade through Westeros seeking violence with the sword, the women represent the most compelling characters through strength, resolve, and dignity.

A Clash of Kings is an epic tale with immense depth. If you have yet to read A Game of Thrones, I suggest you do so.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What do you think? What makes a compelling female character? Does George R. R. Martin succeed in depicting strong female characters in an overtly masculine setting?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Album Review: Port of Morrow

Port of Morrow by The Shins (Columbia Records/Aural Apothecary, 2012. 40 minutes)

The Shins are an indie rock band originally from Albuquerque, NM, now located in Portland, OR. The Shins consist of James Mercer (vocals, guitar), Joe Plummer (drums), Jessica Dobson (guitar), Yuuki Matthews (bass), and Richard Swift (keyboards). The band is most widely known for their third album, Wincing the Night Away, which debuted at number two on the Billboard Charts and nominated for a 2008 Grammy award, as well as the Garden State soundtrack.

The Purge

Ok. Port of Morrow is good. It shows sometimes a purge is necessary, as only one of the original members of The Shins remains. In 2008, when the band announced their contract with Sub Pop was up, it became evident that the next album, Port of Morrow, would be produced on lead singer James Mercer’s Aural Apothecary label. With the new backing band featuring Jessica Dobson (Deep Sea Diver), Richard Swift (Starflyer 59), Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), and Yuki Matthews (Crystal Skulls), the overall sound is much more refined and detailed than past albums. 

Personality and Meaning

I had trouble finding a track on the album I didn’t enjoy. Port of Morrow has a more downtempo feel in general, but there are some inspiring upbeat tracks in the album as well. Port of Morrow refers to Portland, Oregon. Because it refers to Mercer’s adopted hometown, the album has more personality and meaning than his past albums, which I think makes it much more intriguing and exciting to listen to. The sense of place provides personality by housing the songs in reality. These aren’t banal love songs but semi-biographical works of art.

Overall the album carries a similar tone throughout, but I’ll highlight what I consider the “best tracks”. The opening track “The Rifle’s Spiral” is one of particular note. Starting with ominous atmospheric filigree, the track then explodes with a catchy pop guitar riff and simple snare hits. With introspective, complicated lyrics, this song thoroughly thought out to say the least.
“Listen, now, we won’t tell anyone/But you gonna tell the world/This whole life ain’t been any fun,/Let your viscera unfurl “

The song then dissolves almost seemingly into the next track, the single “Simple Song”. One of the strongest tracks on the album, it reverts back to previous Shins albums, especially the album Wincing the Night Away.

Thankfulness for a Sister

“Fall of ’82” is one of the more catchy tunes on the album taking influence from Bob Dylan in the lyrical content and The Beatles in the intermediary guitar riffs and vocal melody. A Chuck Mangione-like trumpet occurs during the half point in the song. Telling the story of Mercer and his sister while they grew up, and how his sister saved him from himself in the fall of ’82, Mercer is the man he is because of her. This song is a must-listen.
“I do relate to you in so many ways/But, I didn’t go through what you must have in those early days/You had to be strong at such a very young age/A new life from lemonade. So won’t you listen to me now?/There’s something I never told you./And I’m about to try,/See you were my lifeline when the world was exploding”


Another favorite track is “40 Mark Strasse”, the nickname for the street where American servicemen at Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany can pick up prostitutes to relieve them of their “pressures” during their long service to their country. The song tells the story of a local German in love with a girl who whores herself out willingly to the servicemen. Her mom isn’t there for her; her dad is a drunk; she has no future. The man (singer) says she doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into; she needs to not let the American boys put another dent in her life. 

To go deeper, the lyrics are a metaphor for how James Mercer feels about American foreign policy—he believes it to be destroying the lives of people around the world with their childish notions, and how they inevitably allow the Americans to put another dent in a foreigner’s way of life.
“Cause every single story/is a story about love/both the overflowing cup/and the painful lack thereof/You got the heart of a dove./But you play in the street at night,/blow just like a broken kite./My girl, you’re giving up the fight,/you’ll have to lose all them childish notions/if you’re gonna let these American boys/put another dent in your life”

I’ve highlighted just a few of the songs (my favorites) on Port of Morrow, and have hopefully showed how lyrically deep and expressive the entire album is. I think the band member purge helped focus the album. With freshness came a sense of new inspiration for the band. Mercer puts just as much thought into the musicality of each song as he does the lyrics, and it shows. Port of Morrow is thoughtful, and only gets better with each listen. I think you should try it out.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Television Show Review: The Pitch

The Pitch directed by Philip Lott (Studio Lambert. Premiers Monday, April 30 on AMC.)

Mad Men as Reality TV

Even though I savor the subtle intricacies of character development in AMC’s Mad Men, I can understand how one could be drawn to the business of advertising depicted in the show. With storyboards and persuasive language, the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce seek to persuade by creativity.

With this aspect acting as the foundation of AMC’s most famous show, there is no wonder AMC developed The Pitch, a documentary-style reality television series highlighting two rival ad agencies competing for a client.

Competition: The Core of Capitalism 

In the sneak peak episode, ad agencies McKinney and WDCW fight over the next big SUBWAY® ad campaign. The episode commences with both agencies meeting at SUBWAY® headquarters learning the preliminary guidelines and target audiences of the advertising campaign.

Upon receiving the assignment, both agencies have one week to create an ad campaign before returning to  SUBWAY® headquarters with a pitch. One agency wins; the other returns empty-handed.

On one side, I believe The Pitch carries promise, perhaps becoming the next big reality show highlighting corporate America. On the other side, the series format might become its biggest downfall.

The Pros 

Much like the depiction of the day-to-day at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in Mad Men, The Pitch flourishes during the scenes in the proverbial kitchen—the work spaces where ideas come to life. With tense brainstorming sessions and gorgeous cinematography of respective workplaces, The Pitch imports the viewer into the agencies.

As a fly on the wall, the viewer gains understanding of the process as the agencies develop a pitch for the client.

The Cons 

However, The Pitch flounders in the character-development department. For starters, those giving the pitch are not those developing the pitch—the high level employees meeting with SUBWAY® entrust pitch development to copywriters.

For this reason, the people we meet at the beginning of the episode step aside during the middle portions while the ideas mature. In fact, the times when the pitch people interact with the copywriters, the senior executives hover over the ideas with insensate opinions.

This schism, coupled with covering two separate agencies, creates surface level characters. The viewer never understands how these ad agencies function. We get a glimpse of the process, mostly from the copywriters as they explain the fear behind proposing an idea, exposing their creativity to criticism.

Lastly, The Pitch covers new ad agencies every week. As such, any traction in character development one week disappears with a new cast of characters the next. Such a position leaves The Pitch prone to inconsistent television with each episode surviving or dying on the strength of that week’s cast of characters.

The Verdict 

Will The Pitch make compelling television? I’m not sure. Certainly, there is a blueprint for success—most viewers find glimpses into alternative careers to be fascinating. Yet, new ad agencies every week create difficulty for overarching stories. Weekly meeting a new ensemble of characters means no connections.

Does a series need connections? Not necessarily. Look at Undercover Boss, a highly successful series where presidents and CEOs go undercover to learn more about their companies. But each episode of Undercover Boss features one person in one company, while The Pitch highlights two ad agencies competing for the business of a third party.

The Pitch has promise, on the whole. If you are curious about marketing, design, and the advertising industry, you might enjoy this show.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Are you interested in watching the series premier? Does the creative side of capitalism interest you? Is it possible to create art for a client? How about those in the design world. Does this series intrigue you? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: Legend

Legend by Marie Lu (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011. 305 pp)

Marie Lu was born near Shanghai, China, in 1984. She attended the University of Southern California, and before becoming a full-time writer, she was an Art Director at a video game company. She lives in Pasadena with her boyfriend and three dogs.

Capitalizing on the Trend

Capitalizing on teen, angst-driven dystopian fiction, 27 year-old Marie Lu obviously had a target market for the novel, Legend. I certainly can’t blame her for exploiting the newest craze, especially since the movie rights already have been purchased from the same people who produced the poorly written Twilight franchise. For this reason, Legend came across my radar, and having a penchant for dystopian fiction, I thought it might be a fun read.

The Republic

Legend is set in a future world amid the ruins of Los Angeles in the Republic of America, a country at war with the colonies, which are east of a no-man’s-land, the vast expanse from the Dakotas to west Texas. The two teenaged protagonists are Day and June. Having both taken the government’s exam called the trial (similar to the SAT), they have ended up in dissimilar situations. Day is the Republic’s most wanted rebel, and June is a top-of-the-line soldier and servant of the Republic.
“[Someone] gets a perfect score—1500 points. No one’s ever gotten this—well, except for some kid a few years ago who the military made a goddy fuss over. Who knows what happens to someone with a score that high? Probably lots of money and power, yeah? You score between a 1450 and a 1499. Pat yourself on the back because you’ll get instant access to six years of high school and then four at the top universities in the Republic: Drake, Stanford, and Brenan…You squeak by with a score between 1000 and 1249. Congress bars you from high school. You join the poor, like my family…You fail. It’s almost always the slum-sector kids who fail. If you’re in this unlucky category, the Republic sends officials to your family’s home. They make your parents sign a contract giving the government full custody over you” (7).
In this caste society, the scores create a complete divide where the brilliant rule and the unintelligent frequent the slums where a mysterious plague kills people.
Photo by Chris Lott

Day is set on finding vials of plague cures for his family so they can survive in the lurid living conditions they’ve been forced into. June lures Day into a trap in order to catch the Republic’s most wanted criminal. Moreover, she wants to catch him for personal reasons—he killed her brother, Metias. Once lured into the trap and caught, she familiarizes herself with Day before turning him in to her superiors. June begins to wonder if Day is as bad as the Republic has depicted.
Maybe Day didn’t kill Metias, I tell myself. Maybe it was someone else. God—am I making excuses to protect this boy now?” (141)
My Complaints

Then—no surprises here—both characters end up working together, fighting the Republic, and figuring out the dark secrets their country has spawned. And, following the teen dystopian craze set in motion by The Hunger Games, they fall in love and beat the odds. Much like The Hunger Games, there is no real danger in the novel. Both characters are agile, smart, and altogether better specimens than their rivals. Unlike better novels where there is danger for the main characters—A Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings are great examples—the characters you root for are always going to survive, in very predictable fashion.

What’s more, in an act of what could be brilliant writing, Marie Lu organizes the book in alternating journal entries from the main protagonists, Day and June. However, Day’s journal entries are filled with annoying colloquialisms and clichés like “cousin”. The intention may have been to make him seem uneducated and edgy, but it was only exasperating in the end. In addition, the voices of Day and June are almost exactly the same, even with the occasional colloquialism in Day’s journal entries. If the entries weren’t printed in different type, one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

Overall, I loved the plot of Legend; it interlaced some brilliant ideas. I also enjoyed the notion of the world Marie Lu created. However, with some literary missteps, the novel simply fell short for me. The lack of fear and the annoying language caused ample amounts of frustration. If you want to read a dystopian teen fiction, stick to The Hunger Games, which frankly has the same problems, but they are much less frequent.

Verdict: 2 out of 5

What do you think? Have you found annoyances in teen dystopian fiction? Conversely, did you enjoy Legend? Is there merit to this new trend?
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Launch

Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business beyond the Competition by Michael A. Stelzner (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 255 pp)

Michael Stelzner is CEO and founder of Social Media Examiner, an influential business blog boasting a monthly readership of over 450,000 people. Michael earned a master’s degree in communications from San Diego State University. In addition to Launch, Stelzner has authored Writing White Papers, a best seller. Michael lives in Southern California.

The Emerging Might of Social Media

Not yet a decade old, social media has transformed the way we live our lives. From the way we interact with our friends and family to the way information disseminates, social media now operates integrally in our lives.

For businesses, social media creates both unique problems and unique opportunities. Where a business could previously rely on dissatisfied customers sharing their vitriol to a handful of people, social media expands the platform for customers to proliferate discontentment. Likewise, the free flowing nature of information on social networks provides opportunities for businesses to create viral campaigns, a promotion more influential and lasting than classical marketing techniques.

With Launch, Michael Stelzner outlines a compelling case for social media content to replace classical marketing messaging.

Great Content Fuels Business in the Internet Age 

Photo by Trey Ratcliff
Stelzner believes social media to be the fuel by which a business launches itself into the stratosphere. With a straightforward metaphor illustrating a rocket ship, Stelzner sketches the ways in which a business can leverage great content. In simple terms, Stelzner introduces the core principle upon which the entire book stands:
“The elevation principle is the process of meeting the core desires of prospects and customers by helping them solve their basic problems at no cost” (7).
For a business seeking to utilize social media, content is king. To gain traction, followers, and eventually customers, businesses must freely share valuable information.

In consideration of the target market, companies must provide valuable and applicable content to its potential customer base. For example, if one owns a juice shop, he or she should consider blogging about the health benefits of juices. Similarly, if one runs a photography business, video blogs detailing the process of photo shoots could provide valuable insights into the photography world.

Social Media as Service 

No matter the market, the elevation principle seeks to reorient marketing principles toward the notion of service. While classic marketing schemes view potential customers as fish in need of stentorian bait stimuli, Stelzner suggests a different strategy.

By freely providing valuable content, a business positions itself as an expert in the field; blogging and tweeting foster relationships with a potential customer base. By freely giving, devoid of apparent marketing messaging, the customer becomes more willing to learn about the company.

How Does Free Work in a Competitive Environment? 

Many, however, might question the strategy of giving away valuable content for free. If a business bestows its valuable trade secrets, how can it make money in a competitive environment?

Stelzner suggests,
“If your marketing strategy centers on helping people with their smaller problems, many will seek your help to solve their bigger issues” (7-8).
Much like the gift principle where a freely given gift offers the recipient a chance to return the favor, free and valuable content inspires an audience and causes them to consider the business for deeper needs.

Beware of the Simple Fix 

Photo by Thos Ballantyne
With inspiring examples of businesses successfully implementing these principles, Stelzner writes in a motivating manner.

But, I urge caution.

Business is never as simple as a singular motivational statement. While I agree wholeheartedly on the principle of service, I do not assume adhering to this principle consistently results in a successful business.

Ultimately, Launch depicts Stelzner’s success story. In following his principles, Stelzner gained massive success. Perhaps Launch functions as a blueprint worth following. But, I would suggest not relying on it and assuming success will necessarily follow.

In a plugged-in world, businesses must master social media. With loads of free, valuable content one click away, a business must offer value through blogs and social media in order to serve its customers. Stelzner’s elevation principle provides the foundation of service upon which a business can soar through the heavens.

Will it always work? I’m not convinced. Nevertheless, anyone interested in integrating social media into a business needs to read Launch.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Do you use social media in your business? Why or why not? Do you find social media to be a valuable tool? Does it scare you to give away valuable content for free? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Film Review: Being Elmo

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey directed by Constance Marks (Constance Marks Productions, PG, 80 minutes)

Starring Kevin Clash.

The Most Famous Person You've Never Heard of

Kevin Clash is the most famous person you’ve never heard of. He is the voice and genius behind the Sesame Street character, Elmo. Through viewing his life, it is easily seen that art functions only as well as what drives it. It is Kevin’s ambition, love for puppeteering, and most of all love for others that drives him, and it can be seen in his most famous puppet/muppet character, Elmo.

In the documentary, Being Elmo, Whoopi Goldberg narrates Kevin’s rise to puppet stardom. A teenager growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, puppets, Captain Kangaroo and Sesame Street mesmerized Kevin. Because of those television shows, Clash found he had very different aspirations than his classmates. He didn’t strive to be a fireman, ninja, or doctor like most boys, but rather to work with Jim Henson, the most famous puppeteer.

Kevin began his rise to stardom by stealing a coat from his father’s wardrobe and fashioning it into a puppet. His father, accepting the loss of his favorite coat, encouraged Kevin to create more puppets, saying, “Just ask next time”. The encouragement of his parents most likely spurred Kevin onto great success. His mom called Kermit Love, Sesame Street’s expert puppet maker, and persuaded him to take Kevin under his wing. Kermit taught Kevin the ins and outs of show business as well as the craft of 
puppet making.

There Goes My Hero

Through what Kevin describes as a “miracle,” he meets his hero, Jim Henson, after Kermit Love asks Kevin to participate in the Sesame Street float for the Macy’s Parade as the puppeteer for the lovable Cookie Monster. During the after party in the Macy’s building, Kevin meets Jim Henson, and, too nervous to get a word out, Kermit kindly does all the talking for him, getting him work with Henson himself.

Kevin, then, goes through a series of jobs for Jim Henson, including working on the movie Labyrinth, where Kevin worked on some incredibly complex scenes with the puppets. Kevin does a commercial with Henson, but the jobs are getting him nowhere.

The Greatest Puppet of All Time

Finally, we meet Elmo, speaking in a deep guttural voice, delivered by veteran puppeteer Richard Hunt, one of Henson’s right hand men. Hunt hates the character and gives up, exasperated and frustrated. He, in chagrin, tosses the puppet to Kevin, saying “maybe you’ll have better luck than me”.

Kevin labors over Elmo, and finally develops a character. Knowing that all great characters are inspired by something (i.e. Miss Piggy is a truck driver who wants to be a woman, at least according to the film), Kevin comes up with his inspiration: love. Love is what makes Elmo one of the most well-known muppets of all time. Culminating in scenes where Elmo makes a dying child’s wish come true by meeting him, the premise of the documentary becomes clear.

Art functions only as well as what drives it.

Great comedians are driven by the desire to make someone laugh and lighten their day. A great drama is driven by the desire to tell an entertaining story. But, all of these goals are ignoble compared to the inspiration that Kevin chose.

Kevin Clash picked the most noble of inspirations: love. The documentary states that Elmo has only become such a success because he embodies love. Elmo both gives love to others, and needs it as well. Clash succeeds in show business not through underhandedness or sly dealings, but rather through idealizing pure human emotion. Totally mesmerized by this documentary and Kevin Clashes single-minded pursuit towards being a puppet master, I sincerely recommend Being Elmo.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What do you think?  Does it matter what inspires art?  Should it matter, but we only choose to ignore it? Is Elmo the most famous of muppets?  Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: Watergate

Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012. 448 pp)

Thomas Mallon is an American author whose notable works include Henry and Clara, Bandbox, and Fellow Travelers. A specialist in non-fiction, Mallon focuses his studies on plagiarism, diaries, and the Kennedy assassination. A contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Book Review, Mallon earned his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University. He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rockefeller Fellowship, and the National Book Critics award for reviewing. Currently, Mallon directs the Creative Writing program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The Passive Voice 

A writing technique I learned much too late in my academic life, I still struggle with active voicing. By preferring active verbs over passive verbs, a writer provides strong and compelling language for the reader. As a simple illustration, consider these two examples:
  1. George passed the ball; 
  2. The ball was passed by George. 
In the active voicing, the first sentence offers clear and precise prose describing an action by a character. In the passive voicing, the second sentence presents George as a background character. Even though both sentences describe the same action, the active sentence feels clearer.

Much like sentence construction, character development requires activity. Author Donald Miller once tweeted,
“If a character in a movie doesn’t know what he wants, the story drags. The same is true in life.”
Truthfully, passive characters create a boring story.

Sadly, in Thomas Mallon’s work of historical fiction, Watergate, the characters appear passive as if the mounting evidence surrounding the Watergate scandal influences the characters into action, rather than characters influencing Watergate.

A Scandal from the Top 

Richard Nixon
Born over a decade after the events occurring in the wake of a June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters, I honestly admit to no rooting interest in the well-known controversy of Watergate. Housed within the acrid partisanship which permeates American society, the feelings of those who experienced the events must certainly equate to the party lines. As such, I do not accept Richard Nixon as the scapegoat for everything wrong with Republicanism or a victim of liberal politics.

Interestingly, Mallon decides to unveil the events of Watergate through a series of chapters containing multiple protagonists. With each chapter skipping a month or more ahead, Mallon reveals the dramatic events through susurrus dialogue between offending parties.

The Connecting Glue 

If I had to name a main character, Fred LaRue would earn the title. Present during the initial planning of the break-in and a crucial actor in the subsequent cover-up, LaRue forges the perfect bridge between the administration and the burglary.
“LaRue sat on the bed for a moment, silently reviewing the algebra that governed the room on the other side of the wall. Magruder hated Liddy. Mardian hated Magruder. Ehrlichman hated Mitchell. Mitchell hated Colson. And that was all before Friday night. He himself was a kind of lotion, a soother, the one most generally trusted because he was the one least thoroughly known” (41-42).

A Complicated President

President Nixon remains a complicated character, at times scurrilous and at others a fragile product of unalterable forces. Mallon illustrates this dichotomy well; he utilizes the First Lady, Pat Nixon, to describe the early days of the presidency:
“’I’m remembering a day late in ’68. A few weeks after the election. We were going from New York to Key Biscayne, and Johnson gave us Air Force One for the trip. We got on it together for the first time. And you know what he did? Dick?’
‘Tell me.’
‘He picked me up by the waist and spun me around. Twice. He hadn’t done that when we got the house in Whittier or even the one on Tilden Street, just a couple of miles from here. But that plane. That was carrying me over a threshold he could appreciate’” (216).
Here, Mallon carefully balances Nixon as a loving husband with Nixon as a power hungry politician.

Characters Influenced by Circumstance 

Watergate in 2 Covers
Despite these interesting character traits, passivity, like strong glue, connects the characters. Nobody truly feels guilty for the Watergate events because no single person feels directly responsible. With each character carrying substantial amounts of doubt, the circumstances surrounding the Watergate scandal act as the primary influencers in Mallon’s story. As an example, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s personal secretary cites the argument from authority as a defense against her guilt.
“If she passed the money on, would she be committing a crime? Would the lack of a specific instruction to have done so make her less guilty—or more? All her instincts spoke of the danger and foolishness of what she was about to do, but if this was the boss’s chosen course, she wasn’t going to second-guess him” (188).
By relaying guilt to her boss, Woods defends her actions as if she is incapable of defying orders. Interestingly, guilt exists in defying orders but not in covering up the scandal.

Ultimately, the same difficulties with a passive sentence exist in the characters of Watergate. A compelling character must act. Readers find entertainment in a driven character; they do not enjoy a character left swaying in the winds of lassitude. Even if Mallon intended to illustrate the nature of the political beast consuming the Nixon administration through no action of the characters, passiveness created a frustrating read. If you are interested in the Watergate scandal, Watergate might be an entertaining read. However, it did not do enough for me.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

What do you think? Did you experience Watergate? Do your political leanings influence your perception of Nixon? Can a passive character be intriguing?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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