Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Album Review: Mylo Xyloto

Mylo Xyloto by Coldplay (Parlophone, 2011. 44 minutes)

Coldplay are a British alternative rock band led by vocalist Chris Martin. Recently produced by Brian Eno, Coldplay has enjoyed a high level of acclaim and success. The band has won numerous awards throughout their career, including seven Grammy Award wins from twenty Grammy Award nominations. Coldplay has sold over 50 million records worldwide.

What is in a Name?

“Mylo Xyloto.” Upon hearing these words, the first thing that came to mind was this exact thought: what? Martin claims that it means “xylo toes”, as in musical toes from a xylophone. But, album title aside, Mylo Xyloto is wonderful. Despite the aid of Brian Eno, it took me a while to get into the record. While reviewing the album as a whole is rather hard to do, I’m going to attempt to make a few comments about a couple of tracks.

Princess Rihanna 

The album, according to lead singer Chris Martin, is a concept album, following a love story in an oppressive 1984-esque dystopia. I don’t really see it, but I think the album is absolutely fantastic nonetheless. It’s apparent that Coldplay is pushing themselves to grow. I think that every band that desires to change their sound somewhat is a band worth following, and Coldplay has assuredly succeeded in this pursuit, notably on their dark, pop hit “Princess of China”.


Coldplay changes their sound dramatically in this track, erring on the side of electronic pop. To further this genre change, they even include Rihanna, I think to their detriment. This song would have been just fine without her mucking about all diva-like. But hey, her inclusion helps gain access to the top 40!

Hello Charlie Brown! 

My favorite track is, without a doubt, “Charlie Brown”. It possesses an absolutely ingenious melodic line to start the track. The song is also rhythmically complex, intricate, and thoughtful. A toe-tapping wonder, I doubt “Charlie Brown” will ever get old. Frankly, I don’t think words can do it justice so have a listen.


Paradise 

Lastly, “Paradise” is definitely worth, at the very least, watching the music video of an elephant (Chris Martin) trying to find his pack. The chorus is grand, and there of faint echoes of U2 throughout—a comparison from which Coldplay has never shied away.

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Coldplay’s previous albums were based on quick, catchy tunes that really stuck with you readily, and “Paradise” is the only track on this album that still fits that stereotype. Their previous albums were a little more accessible, and toward the end of a listen, I would say repetitive as well. Though it may be easier to like something on the first listen, it may not always be the best, as is proven in Mylo Xyloto. Their evolved sound is worth diving into and taking the time to get to know, as the record makes the last few albums seem quaint and simple. Additionally, the bigness, as well as the heart behind the album, creates a worthwhile listen.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: Good News to the Poor

Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990. 236 pp)

The current Professor of Biblical and Constructive Theology at Chicago Theology Seminary, Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. earned his A.B. from Duke University in 1964 and both his B.D. and Ph.D. from Emory University in 1967 and 1971 respectively. Jennings has served as a local pastor and taught for three years at the Methodist Seminary in Mexico City. He has served as a consultant with the United Methodist Church on issues related to commitment to the poor. His research interests include Christian doctrine, biblical theology, gay studies, contemporary late modern philosophy and deconstruction.

The Relationship between Wealth and Piety

Similar to ancient Israel, a dominant thread in current Christian thought is the belief that poverty is a result of sin, a doctrine known as prosperity theology. Whether a person possesses low socio-economic status due to slothfulness or an addiction to some vice such as alcohol, drugs, or gambling, Christians assume that growth in piety equals growth in the bank account. Although John Wesley’s followers fall into this problematic assumption, Theodore Jennings argues that Wesley’s theology denies this faulty premise.

Exploring Jennings’ book, Good News to the Poor, I will argue that Wesley opposes the increase of riches, proposes a preferential option for the poor, and suggests solidarity with the poor through wise stewardship. Then, I will question Wesley’s premises by asking if it is necessary to increase capital in order to optimally steward property for those in need.

The Danger of Wealth

Theodore Jennings’ appraisal of John Wesley’s evangelical economics begins with the premise that Wesley acutely understands the danger of wealth for a sanctified Christian life. In contrast to many Christians who believe that wealth and power signifies divine favor, Wesley finds that wealth and power possesses a corrosive force for individuals, institutions, and sovereign nations. Jennings notes,
“In sermon after sermon, Wesley hammers home the theme that the increase in possessions leads naturally to the death of religion” (35).
Combating the natural propensity for people to sensationalize the need for increased riches, Wesley demystifies the pursuit and warns Methodists that such quests lead to perilous eternal consequences for the soul.

A Preferential Option for the Poor

Photo by Trey Ratcliff
The demystification of wealth, then, couples with a preferential option for the poor (Jennings uses this language although Wesley would not). If the pursuit of wealth carries dangerous eternal ramifications, it follows that a life lived in relationship with the poor aligns with Wesley’s evangelical economics. More than a theoretical principle, the preferential option for the poor is a tangible deed for Wesley. Jennings writes,
“Wesley was, if nothing else, the theologian of experience. This did not mean for him a concentration upon isolated moments of interior religious excitement, but rather the immersion in lived experience, in the texture and duration of sensory involvement. If you want to know what love is, you live the life of love and reflect on the vicissitudes of this journey through time. Similarly, if one is to know something of poverty one must spend the time and energy to be with the poor and to appropriate what is encountered there” (53).
Aligning his theory with practice, Wesley actively participated in the lives of the poor. He visited the sick; he took a collection for the poor during his sermons; he developed a “lending stock” that functions similarly to modern-day micro-finance institutions; and he sold inexpensive versions of his writing targeting the poor specifically.

In all these ways, Wesley enlivened his critique of wealth and prosperity by acting with and on behalf of the poor.

A God-Given Right to Stewardship

Having bolstered his critique on wealth and power by acting in solidarity with the poor, Wesley confirms the stark contrast of his economic ethic from the status quo by affirming the notion of stewardship and the redistribution of wealth. Influenced heavily by the early Christian communities in Acts, Wesley rejects the popularized notion of private property developed by John Locke. Wesley believes that everything in creation is the sole property of God.

Wealth, then, is not a God-given product of labor, but a resource for stewardship. Jennings states,
“Wesley’s view of stewardship is a blow at the root of the economics of greed, which continues to dominate our planet. For Wesley, the only legitimate claim to the earth’s resources is based not on industry or capital or enterprise or labor, but on the needs of our neighbor. This is the heart of evangelical economics” (116-117).
Under this premise, gaining riches equates to stealing God’s property.

To summarize, Jennings arranges Wesley’s theology in order to clarify that Wesley vividly believed in the danger of wealth and power. Therefore, Wesley actively aligns his economic ethic with the plight of the poor. Lastly, his view on riches and the poor leads him to reject private property believing that ownership resides with God alone and that humans possess the obligation of stewarding God’s resources wisely.

Give a Fish or Teach to Fish

Despite Jennings’ clear and concise rendering of Wesley’s evangelical economics, I question the practicality of the pursuit. Even though I find the arguments compelling, I wonder whether or not they provide optimal results. More precisely, does Wesley’s evangelical economic theory represent a method that lifts the poor out of poverty or does it merely recognize the plight of the poor? Clearly, Wesley wanted to actively participate in works of mercy that benefit the poor but did these deeds result in actions of charity or actions that solved the root issues of poverty?

This question, essentially, asks whether it is better to give a person a fish or to teach a person how to fish. If Wesley believed in the former, then his system encounters the danger of continual needs for assistance. If Wesley believed in the latter, his system suffers from tension because it requires capital in order to successfully alleviate poverty.

In fact, Wesley’s “lending stock” offers an excellent example of a scenario where the scalability of its success relies on increasing riches. Clearly, wealth and power is a dangerous pursuit. Life is littered with stories of Godly people losing their way as they climb the socio-economic ladder.

Photo by Esparta
Capital is a necessary function of alleviating poverty; just look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But, Wesley would condemn the wealth and affluence of Gates (and I, too, would certainly condemn some of Gate’s practices at Microsoft) despite the clear example his foundation provides in poverty alleviation.

Given Wesley’s premises, it almost seems like Christians ought to thank God for providing society with damned souls capable of gaining prodigious amounts of capital and a concern for poverty alleviation. I’m not sure if I’m willing to accept that scenario.

Clearly, John Wesley vehemently rejects the notion that wealth equals piety and poverty equals sin. Wesley recognizes the danger in increasing riches; he promotes an active relationship that takes the side of the poor; and he suggests that Christians steward God’s resources with the poor in mind. Nevertheless, the success of stewardship and active relationships with the poor requires a certain amount of capital.

Either we praise God for those who increase riches at the expense of their soul for the sake of the poor, or we cut off the potential of alleviating poverty by merely resulting to charity from each family’s minimal surplus. Such a question, in my mind, points to tensions in Wesley’s premises. We ought to help the poor, but I contend that increasing riches could provide benefits for the poor.

Good News to the Poor provides ample food for thought for our current understanding of economics. I urge those interested in theology and economic theory to read this book despite its logical fallibilities.

Verdict: 3 out of 5
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: Damned

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (New York: Doubleday, 2011. 247pp)

Chuck Palahniuk is an American essayist and novelist most known for his novel Fight Club. As a postmodern, minimalist author, he is most widely known for his satirical works, as well as transgressional fiction and horror. He lives in Pasco, Washington.

Letters to Satan 
“Are you there, Satan? It’s me Madison. Don’t take the following as a scolding. Please regard what I’m about to say as strictly constructive feedback. On the plus side, you’ve been running one of the largest, most successful enterprises in the history of…well, history. You’ve managed to grow your market share despite overwhelming competition from a direct, omnipotent competitor. You’re synonymous with torment and suffering. Nevertheless, if I may be bluntly honest, your level of customer service skills really sucks” (79).
In a bizarre Breakfast Club meets Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned documents the life-after-death of a thirteen-year-old girl, Madison, who has been sentenced to life in the eternal fires of hell. I read the Inferno in high school and subsequently Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso. I thought Palahniuk might bring a funny odd twist to the hell-fire franchise with this work, and I was somewhat right. Hell, in Palahniuk’s world, is unconventional to say the least.

Thirteen and Dead 

Photo by Dave Hogg
Each chapter in Damned begins with a letter to Satan, like the one above. After this introduction, Madison usually describes part of her past life as a daughter of a narcissistic film-star mother and a billionaire father. Abandoned at her Swiss boarding school while her parents attend the academy awards (her mother is presenting), she and her boyfriend take residence in a hotel room and smoke a lot of marijuana. A lot. She smokes so much marijuana that she dies of an overdose, ending up in hell, an ironic place where The English Patient plays on repeat nonstop. She shares eternal damnation with a jock, a punk rocker, a nerd, and a cheerleader. Much like the classic understanding of damnation, none of these characters really appreciate hell.
“But, to be honest, when you’re dead probably not even homeless people are retarded people will want to trade you places. I mean, worms get to eat you. It’s like a complete violation of all your civil rights. Death ought to be illegal but you don’t see Amnesty International starting any letter-writing campaigns. You don’t see any rock stars banding together to release hit singles with all the proceeds going to solve MY getting my face chewed off by worms” (5).
Madison believes that she has the right to appeal her eternal sentence. As one would expect, Madison simply isn’t pleased with her ending up in hell. So, she journeys across the satanically-inspired terrain to hell headquarters, where she hopes to file said appeal.
“My reasoning is…if convicted murderers can linger on death row for decades, demanding access to law libraries and gratis public defenders, while scribbling briefs and arguments with blunt crayons and pencil stubs, it seems only fair that I ought to appeal my own eternal sentence” (94).

A Journey through Hell 
Photo by Carol Browne
The journey, then, becomes a gigantic satire on both hell and current human society. Madison, a spoiled, incredibly intelligent thirteen-year-old thinks she is better than everyone else. Her intricate vocabulary is a way of showing off her pride, but she admits that her only sin is smoking too much marijuana. On her journey across the candy-lined (the kinds you don’t like such as popcorn balls and sen-sen) floors of hell they cross the swamp of partial birth abortions, the sea of discarded sperm, the dandruff desert, and so on. In a perverted homage to Gulliver's Travels, Madison even climbs a demon as tall as a tornado only to end up with a job in the center of hell as a telemarketer.
“My job is: The dark forces are constantly calculating when it’s dinnertime anywhere on earth, and a computer autodials those phone numbers so I can interrupt everyone’s meal. My goal isn’t actually to sell you anything; I just ask if you have a few seconds to take part in a market research study identifying consumer trends in chewing gum. In mouthwash. In dryer fabric-softener sheets” (105).
Though the story was unconventional and frankly disturbing at times, I enjoyed this book. Chuck Palahniuk in his stereotypical style offers a story with a twist, one I will not divulge here. If you can handle some vulgarity, some humor, and some borderline sacrilegious themes, I think Damned is at least worth a cursory read. I hear it may even have a sequel.

Verdict: 3 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Film Review: Sin Nombre

Sin Nombre directed by Cary Fukunaga (Scion Films, Canana Films, and Creando Films, R, 96 min)

Starring Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores, and Kristian Ferrer.

35,000 Feet between Cultures

An airplane flies overhead as the characters look up in awe, dreaming of the day that they too can board a passenger plane. This scene is a brief but defining moment in Sin Nombre. It expresses the distance between the life of the viewer and the life depicted on screen.

Shot in Mexico and with dialogue in Spanish, Sin Nombre depicts the intertwining lives of two characters, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy “El Casper” (Edgar Flores), as they escape the poverty and gang culture of Honduras.

Strikingly Different People, Strikingly Similar Pursuits

Sayra, with her father and uncle in tow, seeks refuge in the United States. With only a small amount of money to share between the three, the group stows away on the top of a train heading from Honduras through Mexico to the United States.

Meanwhile, Willy, a gang member known as “El Casper” flees his brethren after a fatal fit of rage left a homie dead. You see, Willy’s fellow gang member killed the love of his life when it was revealed that Willy shirked his duties to spend time with her.

As such, Willy finds himself on the same train knowing full well that his quest to escape his gang is an uphill battle since the price on his head is astronomical.



Through the adventures of escaping Border Patrol and vindictive gang members, Sayra and Willy grow close as they emigrate to the land of hope and plenty.

Entertainment in the Misfortune of Others

Although the plot intrigues, what really rattled me while watching Sin Nombre was the disconnect between my life and the lives of these characters. Most evidently, despite my fears regarding my economic standing, I have a roof over my head, food always a moment away from my belly, and the continual hope for job prospects.

In contrast, both characters possess little. For them, the idea of opulence is access to America and a minimum wage job. The difference is most evident in the scene where the characters dreamingly long for the possibility of flight—a phenomenon most individuals in our culture take for granted.

Sin Nombre provides compelling cinema not only through a pulse-racing plot, but also by its socio-economic implications. Those in the middle class too often get caught in the rat race comparing their lifestyles to those in higher classes. Yet in truth, the middle class is highly luxurious to the rest of the world.

Of course, watching a movie like Sin Nombre offers the danger of complacency in thinking “at least our situation is not as bad as theirs.” But I believe Sin Nombre is well worth watching to be reminded of the perils in the developing world and hopefully it urges you to consider ways in which we can make a difference.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Film Review: Exit Through The Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop directed by Banksy (Paranoid Pictures, Revolver Entertainment, R, 87 minutes)

Starring: Thierry Guetta, Banksy, Shepherd Fairey, Invader

Graffiti as Art 
  
You’re walking down the street and suddenly you see something—graffiti. If you live in any major city, you’ve seen it, and they are not that pretty. They are normally some gang insignias or autographs marking territory; they are something you ignore. Perhaps they are something you hate to see, or something that is vulgar and repulsive.

What would happen if the graffiti were beautiful? You would stop and look at it in awe, and hopefully it would make you think. This is the beginning of the street art phenomena. The documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, follows figures such as Banksy (who also directed the film), as well as a nobody-film-maker-turned-street-artist, whose street name is Mister Brain Wash.



The Film Maker 

Thierry Guetta is a French immigrant living in L.A. and he makes a pretty decent living running a vintage clothing shop. But, his first love is for film. He films everything, including his cousin, “Invader”, who is an internationally known street artist. Invader tags property with tile art of space invaders (from the video game). Guetta unknowingly stumbled upon and filmed something big: the rise of street art.

Guetta also documents Shepard Fairey—an artist best known for his depictions of Andre the Giant and the Obama campaign poster of 2008—under the auspices that he is filming a documentary on the rise of street art, though all he is doing is filming street artists and throwing the film into unlabeled boxes. Finally, he is introduced to the hero of street art, a man known as Banksy.

Banksy by Oscilloscope Laboratories
The Venerated Artist 

Banksy is a prominent and secretive street artist who, at the time of filming, was preparing a show called “Barely Legal” in Skid Row in L.A. Thinking that street art is not a long-lasting phenomenon and is usually destroyed soon after completing it, Banksy sees an opportunity and has Guetta film his work as well as his show “Barely Legal”. So he gives Guetta the assignment of creating a documentary of all his film, one that tells the history of the street art movement. The result is a film entitled Life Remote Control, which is the biggest piece of garbage ever viewed. It’s a 90-minute schizophrenic film with seemingly random themes, and Banksy decides it’s unwatchable, and the Guetta might be certifiably crazy. So, Banksy takes a turn producing it into a documentary (Exit Through the Gift Shop) and gives Guetta an assignment to keep him busy: he is to produce his own street art.

Art Defiled 

Guetta decides to name himself MBW, or Mister Brain Wash (for those wondering, yes, brainwash is normally one word). Mr. Brain Wash, then, re-mortgages his business, rents copious amounts of printing supplies, and hires people to design his ideas. He then produces a show, called “Life is Beautiful” and holds it in a former CBS studio.

The show was a success, despite the fact that he copied works of other people (street artists and famous pop-artists like Andy Warhol), and can’t even describe the meaning of his art to others. Banksy and the street art community are outraged, as Brain Wash skipped a step. He never took the time to establish himself, work hard, and create art that actually meant something. Rather, he just made it happen in some defiled non-artistic way. It’s sad that someone can create “art” without really trying and understanding what they create.

The Controversy 

Photo by Trois Tetes
This film has only succeeded in making Brain Wash look horrible, and Banksy and Shepherd Fairy look like street art heroes. And, Guetta’s cousin, Invader, doesn’t even talk to him any more. Many critics, however, think that Mr. Brain Wash doesn’t exist and the whole movie was shot by Banksy, even though Banksy himself denies it. Regardless of the controversy that exists about this film, when one compares the artwork alone, one is led to this truth: something is wrong with culture’s relationship to art. Should you view this film, don’t get distracted by the controversy—the point of the film is that art has to have a mysterious combination of quality and individualism. Hype elevates what is not quality, and it’s a dangerous place to go with art. It takes time to develop a voice. Just copying and succeeding through hype alone cannot constitute art.

This move really says more about culture than it says about Guetta or even Banksy.

I sincerely recommend Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I think anyone will enjoy it. You can decide for yourself if you think Guetta is a villain for how he has made a living on his “art”.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Alternate Views: This Too Is Meaningless

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: The Fates Will Find Their Way

The Fates Will Find Their Way: A Novel by Hannah Pittard (New York: Ecco Publishing, 2011. 256 pp)

Hannah Pittard’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Oxford American, the Mississippi Review, BOMB, Nimrod, and StoryQuarterly, and was included in 2008 Best American Short Stories’ 100 Distinguished Stories. She is the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and has taught fiction at the University of DePaul and the University of Virginia, where she was also a Henry Hoyns Fellow.

Telephone!

It begins as early as preschool with children congregating in a circle. The teacher kneels and whispers information to a girl urging her to motion it onward to her neighbor’s ear. As the children intake, comprehend, and transfer information, the meaning quickly loses significance. Upon revealing the information at the final child, the group chuckles at the distance between the final conclusions and the teacher’s original message. The game of telephone teaches us the ease by which information disintegrates.

Beginning with a group of parents activating the telephone chain, Hannah Pittard introduces her novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way with a clear reference to the misinformation of gossip.

The Void of Life

Set in an unspecified suburb, The Fates Will Find Their Way depicts a group of male friends and the lives they lead in the wake of the disappearance of Nora Lindell, a fellow classmate. With time providing the chill of the cold case files, the group of boys must fill in the blanks in their collective psyche.

Did Nora jump in a stranger’s car never to be seen again like the awful scenarios exhibited often in the movies? Pondering the scenario, the boys think,
“They drove away together. It was an adventure, perhaps. But the experience that Nora had no doubt hoped would be intriguing turned quickly into something more menacing than mysterious. Almost immediately after she got in, she probably wanted to get out. It’s the stuff of fantasies, not of real life. In fantasies, you can get into strangers’ cars” (15).
Maybe Nora’s bones are buried in river sediment two counties down.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Did Nora run away buying a plane ticket to a warm location? As the boys grow up and get married, they still meet and discuss the possibilities,
“We liked to imagine that she’d picked Arizona for the Grand Canyon and the warmth. Maybe she’d though it was possible to live in it, in the canyon. But she never admitted that to anyone, not once she got there and saw how wrong her fantasy had been” (69).
As the group of boys transitions to men with wives, children, and real jobs, the obsession with the disappearance of a teenage girl shifts into slightly creepy territory.
“Like our mothers, our wives were troubled by our refusal to let Nora Lindell go. They thought, perhaps rightly, that it was an indulgence from which only jealousy and regret could come” (191).
The Fates Got Lost on the Way

Photo by Grant Hutchinson
In all honesty, that’s about it for a plot. Pittard metaphorically links the lives of these boys to the fates of Greek mythology suggesting that this collective desired to control the lives and deaths of those surrounding them.

Even though she mentions specific names of these boys, no protagonist steps forward. In turn, the reader is left with understanding the boys as the protagonist. Sadly, this step left me indifferent to the plight of these characters. Without much connection to any of them, let alone a clear link to why they valued Nora, the narrative frustrated me.

This realization, coupled with the suspension of belief around boys and gossip, left me unimpressed with this novel.

In the end, I found The Fates Will Find Their Way a quick read about gossip and what it means when a group transforms an unexplained event into a fantastical life story. Artistically, I understand where Pittard is going with the novel, but I didn’t enjoy it. Yes, humanity tends to mold information into an understandable box in our mind. No, I do not recommend this book.

Verdict: 1 out of 5 stars
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review: The Rook

The Rook: A Novel: A Novel by Daniel O’Malley (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2012. 482pp.)

Daniel O’Malley is a first-time author. He works for the Australian government, managing media relations for the agency that investigates transportation accidents. He also holds a master’s degree in medieval history from Ohio State University.

Ghostbusters! 

Though I sometimes hate to admit it, one of my favorite movies has been, and most likely always will be, Ghostbusters!. I know it’s cheesy; I know the acting isn’t super amazing, but Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd made that movie both hilarious and exciting. So, for me, reading a book that contained equal parts Ghostbusters, James Bond, and Memento really enthralled me. The Rook is a story about a secret service agent who works for special agency that focuses solely on the supernatural (Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service). She loses her memory and The Rook describes the lengths by which she tries to get it back.

The novel opens up with a letter inscribed to the protagonist, Myfanwy (just go with it, pronounced like Tiffany with an “m”), from her past self, addressing her memory loss. She reads the letter with some surprise, then realizes she’s in a park in the rain with no idea who she really is, or how she got there, with dead bodies nearby.
“Willows drooped their long tendrils down around the clearing, and she was standing on what used to be a lawn but was rapidly becoming a mud hole. She came to a decision, pulled her feet out of the mire, and stepped carefully over the ring of bodies that were scattered around her. They were all motionless, and all of them were wearing latex gloves” (3).
Myfawny writes letters to herself throughout the entirety of the novel, a wonderful literary device that the author uses to help the reader follow the life of an amnesiac much like Memento. Myfawny has the information that she needs at hand via a purple binder given to her from her pre-memory-loss self. She just has to read the letters fast enough.

Amnesia

Photo by Mukumbura
The information in these letters describes a secret service organization that deals specifically with the supernatural called the Checquy. Myfanwy is a high ranking official—a Rook—and she is due at work tomorrow. In a plot sequence similar to a James Bond film, Myfanwy figures that someone in the Checquy is the person who wiped her memory, and her previous self didn’t discover that person, even though she was warned several times by various psychics that her memory would be wiped. Describing a prophecy from a random source, O’Malley writes
“‘Myfanwy Thomas, bad things are headed your way. As bad as ever I have seen in my life. You will lose everything. You will end in the rain, and beyond that I cannot see. So enjoy yourself while you can’” (335).
Investigation of the Checquy 

So, Myfanwy investigates the highest level of the Checquy, known as the court, to see if any of these high ranking officials contributed to the memory wipe, and on a basic level, why anyone would try to erase her memory in the first place. This court consists of:
“Rooks (resonsible for domestic operations; based at the Rookery)…Chevaliers (responsible for foreign operations; based at the Annexe)…Bishops (supervisors of the Checquy, aides to the heads; based at Apex House)…[and] Lord and Lady (heads of the Checquy, based at Apex House)” (123).
This book contains something for everyone. If you love James Bond novels, you’ve got action. If you like supernatural powers, and weird urban, you’ll find it here too. If you like twisted mental themes, you’ve got that as well. O’Malley has crafted an engaging novel which succeeds in enrapturing its readers in a mystery / science-fiction / action thriller. The Rook is a creative novel, and I sincerely think O’Malley will be an author to watch in the future. He may even have a new Harry Potter franchise on his hands, as he has plans to write more books on the Checquy.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Alternate View:  I.E. Mommy

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011. 416 pp)

Born in Detroit, Michigan on March 8, 1960, Jeffrey Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University. Eugenides received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Fellowship for a short story he wrote in 1986. In 2002, his novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Eugenides works on faculty at Princeton University’s Program in Creative writing and lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.

The Bachelor/ette-ization of America

As a seemingly perpetual joke, The Bachelor/ette television series illustrates the perils of modern “love”. Each season, a group of mildly-intriguing-but-mostly-insane contestants compete for the affection of a suitor as if the final prize is a life lived happily ever after.

Yet outside a few positive examples, these contestants never walk down the aisle. Although we know the show ends poorly, the ratings remind us that, as a society, we knowingly erase the last failure and hope once more that some striking strangers will find true love.

Life is never happily ever after. With The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides explores the notion of romantic relationships and the modern shift toward a culture that chooses to destroy that very same relationship.
In a quotation that summarizes the main idea of the novel, Eugenides writes, regarding a university course taken by the protagonist, Madeleine,
“In [the professor’s] opinion, the novel [in the abstract, not referencing a specific work] had reached its apogee with the marriage plot and had never recovered from its disappearance. In the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely” (22).
Set in the 1980s at the end of a successful stint at Brown University and the immediate years afterward, The Marriage Plot explores the lives and relationships between three main characters.

The Girl: Madeleine

Madeleine grew up in an upper-middle-class home. The daughter of a college president, Madeleine values education but also desires to escape the rigid structure of her family. Bright, but not brilliant in any specific field, Madeleine majors in English. Her love of academic work compels her to continue her education, but she finds study rather difficult:
“She studied for the GRE using a sample booklet. The verbal section was easy. The math required brushing up on her high school algebra. The logic problems, however, were a defeat to the spirit. ‘At the annual dancers’ ball a number of dancers performed their favorite dance with their favorite partners. Alan danced the tango, while Beck watched the waltz. James and Charlotte were fantastic together. Keith was magnificent during his foxtrot and Simon excelled at rumba. Jessica danced with Alan. But Laura did not dance with Simon. Can you determine who danced with whom and which dance they each enjoyed?’ Logic wasn’t something Madeleine had been expressly taught. It seemed unfair to be asked about it. She did as the book suggested, diagramming the problems, placing Alan, Becky, James, Charlotte, Keith, Simon, Jessica, and Laura on the dance floor of her scrap paper, and pairing them according to the instructions. But their complicated transit wasn’t a subject Madeleine’s mind naturally followed. She wanted to know why James and Charlotte were fantastic together, and if Jessica and Alan were going out, and why Laura wouldn’t dance with Simon, and if Becky was upset, watching” (39).
The end of this long quotation signifies the core reason behind Madeleine’s struggles. Despite her love for study, she can’t help but focus on the relationships in life. College for Madeleine, is more about the people she meets than the topics she studies.

Boy One: Mitchell

Mitchell grew up in Detroit. Having met Madeleine at a party during their freshman year, Mitchell falls in love and forges a tight friendship with her. Unable to conjure the courage to shift the relationship from the “friend zone” to one of a more romantic nature, Mitchell and Madeleine eventually drift apart. Seeking to find meaning at the deeper levels of life, Mitchell transfers his energy from pursuing Madeleine to religious studies.
“There was no evident proselytizing motive. But the effect, for Mitchell, was to make him aware of the centrality of religion in human history, and more important, of the fact that religious feeling didn’t arise from going to church or reading the Bible but from the most private interior experiences, either of great joy or of staggering pain” (93).
Photo by Miqul
With no job prospects on the horizon and a slight desire to attend a school of divinity, Mitchell and a friend travel the world after graduation. From Europe to India, Mitchell’s pilgrimage strengthens his convictions both about Madeleine and about spirituality.

Boy Two: Leonard

Leonard was raised in Portland, Oregon.  Diagnosed with manic depression, Leonard succeeds in the Brown University classrooms but struggles with maintaining barriers in friendships. Sometimes delightful and compelling, while at other times overbearing and awkward, Leonard thrills and kills many friendships. Meeting Madeleine during a course on semiotics, the two immediately magnetize, spending every waking second with the other.

Majoring in biology and set to study at a prestigious fellowship, Leonard’s manic depression threatens to combust both his relationship and his career. Hoping to find a middle ground, he takes massive doses of lithium. Eugenides writes,
“Ten yards away, a statue of a Minuteman, spray-painted with graffiti, rose from the weedy grass. With their flintlock rifles, the Minutemen had fought for liberty and won. If they’d been on lithium, though, they wouldn’t have been Minutemen. They would have been Fifteen-minutemen, or Half-hour-men” (275).
Yet the medication kills the manic function that allowed Leonard to succeed with Madeleine and in the lab.

The Importance of Relationships

As the plot unfolds, these three characters interact on conflicting planes. With brilliant prose and in-depth introspection, Eugenides portrays compelling characters. Light on plot but nonetheless a captivating read, The Marriage Plot explores the meaning of relationships in the unfamiliar and frightening post-collegiate world. As the characters work toward finding identity, their interactions hurt.

We all know that the boy rarely ever finds the girl without leaving some sort of pain for the hopes of a third party. The Bachelor/ette, in fact, distills this idea into an 8 episode season. The happily-ever-after mentality does not exist, but that fact doesn’t require that we forget the importance of relationships. Even though some of Eugenides references might get lost on people unfamiliar with collegiate courses on English and religious studies, the whole package of The Marriage Plot offers a must read.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: Kraken

Kraken by China Miéville (New York: Del Rey, 2010. 509 pp)

China Miéville is the author of several notable novels, including King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, and Un Lun Dun. He describes his own work as “weird fiction.” He teaches creative writing at Warwick University, and is active in the Socialist Workers Party in his home country of England.

Lost in a Book 

Getting lost in a novel can be rare. I still remember as a child reading one of the first books I chose to read on my own, though I wish I remembered what book it was. The characters seemed to burst off the page, and I became an avid reader from that point on. In Kraken, China Miéville manages to make a story burst off the page in a strong story of urban magical realism. Though I got lost in his story, I also seemed to get literally lost in where the author was trying to go at times. In this story, a kraken (giant squid) is stolen, and an amazing Dan Brown-esque adventure ensues.

A Squid is Stolen 

Billy Harrow, our protagonist, is the curator of The Darwin Center, part of London’s Natural History museum. While on his normal tour schedule of the mollusk exhibit, he is disturbed to find that the prize of the exhibit, a preserved giant squid is stolen.
“The centre of the room was empty. All the jars looked over the scene of a crime. The nine-metre tank, the thousands of gallons of brine-Formalin, the dead giant squid itself were gone” (10).

A Cult Emerges 

Photo by Quest
An urban fantasy unveils as Kraken continues, where a magical underbelly emerges alongside modern technology. With the disappearance of this specimen, a mysterious group is strangely vexed that the giant squid is missing. This group worships the giant squid as god, and reveres Billy Harrow as its acolyte, as he’s tended to it for some years now.
“His squid had been a relic in a reliquary. ‘This is kraken year zero...this is Anno Teuthis. We’re in the end times. What d’you think’s been going on? You think it’s just bloody chance that when you bring god up and treat it as you do, the world suddenly starts ending? Why do you think we kept coming to see? Why do you think we had someone on the inside?...We had to know. We had to watch. We had to protect it too, find out what was going on. We knew something was going to happen. You realise the reason you had a kraken to work on is because in roaring it rose and on the surface died?’” (98).
Because Billy had touched the body of god in the mind of the mysterious group, kept it safe, and preserved it against time itself, he ushered in the Anno Teuthis, a phrase meaning “the end of the world.” Not only is there a religious cult that worships the giant squid, but Billy also encounters weird ghosts from the television series Star Trek, a Sect-Related Crime Unit from the Metropolitan Police, and other strange phenomena like Waiti, a spirit from ancient Egypt who leads a group of magicians.

A Magical Urban Fantasy 

All of these strange happenings in the plot make for a page-turning read. But, after a while, I felt a little lost. Page after page, a new fantastical incident occurs, and it’s easy to get lost. Billy floats around in a world that is completely strange, involved in some sort of Kantian, duty-bound magical system. But, Billy rolls with the punches as his investigation gets kraken (pun certainly intended). His unassuming nature keeps him incredibly endearing as he fights the crime lord Tattoo and his demonic undead henchmen, Gross and Stubby.

A Literary-Induced Dream

I was given this novel as a gift by my friend Eric, the same one who recommended I read The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. This novel wasn’t what I expected. At all. In short, Kraken could be defined as humorous madness, a literary-induced dream, and quite a different read for my normal fare. I think being completely lost in a new literary world is a rare occurrence, and I’m thankful that my friend recommended it to me.

All in all, this novel ends up like a magical fantasy a la The Da Vinci Code. Though the novel was complex and strange, I found myself entranced by this extremely different reading. My thoughts are if you liked the mystery and the clue-following found in The Da Vinci Code, and you can handle some weirdness, Kraken is most certainly for you.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book Review: Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke, edited by C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980; originally published in 1690. 124 pp)

Widely known as the Father of Liberalism, John Locke’s work in epistemology and political philosophy has influenced countless nations. Born in 1632 in England, Locke attended Westminster School in London earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Having fled to the Netherlands to escape suspicion of an assassination plot, Locke began publishing his writing upon his return to England. With his writing gaining widespread influence, Locke died in 1704. He never married nor fathered children.

C.B. Macpherson was born in Toronto, Canada in 1911. From 1935 to his death in 1987, he taught primarily at the University of Toronto on political economy and political science. The author of numerous books, Macpherson received the Benjamin E. Lippincott Award of the American Political Science Association in 1979.

“Mine!”

It begins early with a child yelling, “Mine!” We have all heard him/her bursting into tears and the quick crawl/run/waddle to a parent claiming the injustice of lost property. From an early age, we feel the seemingly self-evident truth of private property. We were given an object; we collected items; we connected those items in ways that made a new and much better object.

In all of these scenarios, we learned the idea of “mine.” In John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, the author presents a theological case for government authority through the principle of property.

The Premise of Property

Photo by Eduardo Amorim
Any discussion regarding John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government must center on property. A highly influential writing on political philosophy, Locke’s tome details the ways in which a society organizes and manages itself. But before one can state maxims regarding political government, one must discuss the reasons for organizing societal connections. For Locke, this reason begins with private property.

Locke’s justification for private property begins with the assumption that God the Creator fashioned a world for humanity to subdue and manage. Locke writes,
“God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being” (18).
The earth, then, exists in a supporting role to humankind; it carries no first order intrinsic value. Instead, it functions instrumentally for the good of humanity.

From this position, Locke believes that private property arises from mixing personal labor with land from the God-given commons of the earth. Locke argues,
“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” (19).
Thus, while God provides commons for the good of all humanity, the ability for any human to conduct work allows him or her to transfer land held in common into private property.

To illustrate, under Locke’s philosophy of property, I cannot travel to a pristine wilderness and, upon discovering it, proclaim the land my property. Instead, I must cultivate this discovered land. By building on it and utilizing its soil for food, I then possess the right to proclaim the land my private property.

In short then, Locke suggests that God, who created humanity through labor, considers humans God’s property. God provides the earth as a common for which humans can use their God-given gifts of manual labor to cultivate and transfer the earth into private hands.

Governance

The need for political government arises from this principle of private property. When a society expands beyond the simplicity of cultivating open commons into private property, the need to protect and govern property becomes an important issue. Locke reasons,
Political power is that power, which every man having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property” (89).
Even though the Second Treatise of Government explores many specific matters in the execution of governmental affairs in a united society, the core principles behind these discussions surround Locke’s theological notion of property and the need for governing those God-given rights.

Locke: An American Ideal

Interestingly, I find that Locke’s arguments sound natural as if they are ingrained in the psyche of American society and capitalism as a whole. John Dunn, in an essay titled “Measuring Locke’s Shadow” confirms this idea when he writes,
“Locke is still intractably America’s philosopher, and still very much America’s philosopher for what still seems ever more peremptorily America’s globe. He is the sign on the banner of America’s imperious external reach, her cultural, imaginative, ideological, economic, and even political Griff nach der Weltmacht [bid for world power].”
Put differently, Locke’s ideas on property and the need for government to authorize and protect it are the modus operandi for American business and politics.

Property as Dominance

John Locke
In fact, Locke’s ideas seem to be the foundation for the domination of nature for which society now encounters drastic repercussions. In other words, to align theologically with Locke’s views on property, one must translate “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 as “domination.” What else could private property mean other than the absolute control of a specific portion of God’s creation?

By assuming “domination” of God’s creation in Genesis 1:28, I find tension in Locke’s arguments. Given Locke’s premises, God owns humanity because God created us through work. Under the same assumption, God possesses all of creation. Therefore, humans cannot possess an absolute right over a portion of creation because they were not the first to labor on it.

It then follows that the God-given commons for which humans carry the right to fill and subdue is not a space which humans carry the right to section off into private property but an area owned by God given to humans in common to share and steward for the good of the whole.

Locke centers his political philosophy on a theological case for private property. By mixing labor with the God-given commons, private property arises. As an extension, political governance exists to protect that property. Nevertheless, the notion that God created and thus possesses the created world forces us to consider the earth in stewardship instead of domination. Even though we feel the pull of private property from an early age, our connection to an item through work does not require it to become our private possession.

With dense philosophical writing, Locke’s Second Treatise of Government is a difficult but rewarding read. Despite my reservations regarding Locke’s premises, this book is a must read for anyone interested in politics.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
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Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: Pulphead

Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2011. 365pp)

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and editor of The Paris Review. He is the author of two books: Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son and Pulphead.

“Greatest Hits” 

I recently picked up a couple books containing essays by reputable journalists. The first being Distrust that Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and the second being Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. What I’ve found difficult about these books is that both are rather like listening to a compilation album, or better yet, a “greatest hits” album by an artist you love. On such an album, there are bound to be songs that you love and songs that you hate. Similarly, there are essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead that are pure genius, while others were best to skip over. I’m going to spend time on the pure genius, as I think those essays are reason enough to buy this book.

Creation Fest 

Photo by Altus
In my opinion, the best essay in this collection is the first essay, a commentary on Christian culture against a background of hilarity. In this essay, Mr. Sullivan was assigned to cover a festival in Missouri where Christian bands were playing. But, in a penchant for the more elaborate, instead of merely covering the bands, sitting on the side of the stage, and writing a brief report, he decided to recruit some young Christian folk to travel in a RV with him on the way in order to get more honest material. He posted on a chatroom looking for some travel companions:
“I had failed to grasp how ‘youth’ the [Christian rock] phenomenon is. Most of the people hanging out in these chat rooms were teens, and I don’t mean nineteen either, I mean fourteen. Some of them, I was about to learn, were mere tweens. I had just traipsed out onto the World Wide Web and asked a bunch of twelve-year-old Christians if they wanted to come for a ride in my van” (5).
Five pages into his book of essays, and Sullivan had me hooked. Not only is he talking about Creation Fest, a Christian festival I attended long ago, but he’s funny! He also grasped the Christian “rock” phenomenon quite accurately. Christian rock is somewhat of a separate genre from the rest of rock in general. Sullivan describes why.
“A question must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns nineteen and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would never have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian-rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot…take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus-loving, recognizing that to avoid this is the surest way to connect with the world” (19).
Photo by Robb and Jessie Stankey
I’m a Christian, and I’m a musician, but ask me if I like current Christian bands and I’ll genuinely laugh you out of a room. This kind of statement certainly rings true.

Covering the Christian rock concert marathon that is Creation Festival, Sullivian, listening to the bands suddenly exclaims “Shit, it’s Petra” (those who know of Petra understand the fact that swearing is entirely warranted in this circumstance due to their unnaturally awful sound) and begins to talk about his Christian upbringing in a long exposé. In some of the most honest, beautiful prose discussing one’s personal faith in regards to Christianity, he says that his problem with Christianity is that,
“I love Jesus Christ…He was the most beautiful dude. Forget the Epistles, forget all the bullying stuff that came later. Look at what He said…His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers—there lies sanity. And salvation…once you’ve known Him as a God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken. And one has doubts about one’s doubts” (33).
That’s raw. That’s honest. And, it’s something that I think more people need to think about. Christians have done a lot of stupid things in the name of Christ, to the point that a guy won’t consider himself a Christian because he loves Jesus, not the religion and mantra that’s behind it.

Michael Jackson is Awesome 

Photo by Andy Leddy
Among this book of brilliant essays was a piece about Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson has singlehandedly changed the world of pop (he is, after all, known as the King of Pop) and he gets a bit of a bad rap. He terribly disfigured his face through surgery, did some creepy things, and played in a world of perpetuated childhood. In the essay, Sullivan writes,
“His art will come to depend on his ability to stay in touch with that childlike inner instrument, keeping near enough to himself to heed his own melodic promptings. If you’ve listened to toddlers making up songs, the things they invent are often bafflingly catchy and ingenious. They compose to biorhythms somehow” (112).
The thing that we dislike Michael for so often was also the thing that brought him such beautiful music. It’s true; he may have been a serial child-molester, but then again maybe not. Maybe, Sullivan purports, he just loved children with a similar childlike innocence. Sullivan also muses, that we have perhaps done him an injustice, especially in regard to his looks,
“We have, in any case, a pathology of pathologization in this country, It’s a bourgeois disease, and we do right to call bullshit on it. We moan that Michael changed his face out of self-loathing. He may have loved what he became” (126).
Sullivan succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings of the reader, and forces him or her to come to grips with either former prejudices or doubts about the famous, and perhaps infamous, pop-star that is Michael Jackson.

Sullivan has several other essays that are worth reading as well, one on his time in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina; one on The Real World reality TV series and the reality TV phenomena in general; one on Axl Rose (remember him?); and one on Bunny Wailer (singer and guitarist with Bob Marley). These essays are just a few of the ones I enjoyed in the collection. I highly recommend that you check them out for yourself, as the clarity and honesty he brings to these essays brings out things you wouldn’t think about, or perhaps wouldn’t want to. He tells a story about this world that most of us don’t know, and it’s too honest, raw, and compelling to not read. You just have to find the essays that are the best, as in the end not all of them spoke to me. If all of the essays were as good as the ones I mentioned, I would rate this book much higher. But, Pulphead: Essays is certainly still worth picking up and reading as the good far outweighs the bad.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
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Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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