Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2012. 443 pp)

Adam Johnson is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and teaches at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, and The Paris Review. He is the author of Emporium, a short story collection, as well as the novel Parasites Like Us, which won the California Book Award.

An “Everyday” Story

I’ve taught several international students from North Korea. I especially remember one, as he has an amazing story regarding how he came to the United States. He was imprisoned, along with his father, in North Korea. He was beaten over the head repeatedly during his incarceration, and as a result became brain damaged. He managed to escape from the prison, cross the border to South Korea, and flee as a refugee to the United States where he found sanctuary.

From what I understand, this kind of story is far from rare for those that call North Korea home. From my student I learned that the propaganda provided by the North Korean State acts as an official narrative to an entire people. It doesn’t matter if a story is complete fiction, every citizen is required to mold their lives around the script of the state.

So, when I heard of The Orphan Master's Son, a story set in North Korea, I had to pick it up.


Photo by Lars Plogmann
In a timely fashion, Johnson managed to publish The Orphan Master’s Son just as the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il perished. The author depicts the misadventures of a character named Jun Do, a soldier-turned-kidnapper/surveillance officer in the dictatorial Communist state of North Korea. His grim narrative is in direct contrast to the alternative narrative of the state and Kim Jong Il, both of which are presented in the novel. Jun Do is nothing special; he’s just an everyday man—Jun Do seems to reference a homonym for the American placeholder name, John Doe—who trained in the North Korean military in the art of subterranean martial arts. Jun Do is uneasy about his position as a pawn, set in rigid uniformity within the North Korean end game, and is unsure about why he does what he does.

With accurate descriptive language, Johnson describes unsettling scenes throughout the entire novel in a way that actually makes you feel and taste the fear the characters encounter. Perhaps more importantly, he very easily depicts the struggles of conscience that our protagonist endures.

A Hero Emerges

Photo by John Pavelka
Despite his best efforts and his dislike of his job, Jun Do unintentionally gets promoted from a kidnapper to a translator, where he listens to American sentences and translates them into Korean. Then, he ends up impersonating a North Korean military hero, named Commander Ga, whom he most likely killed (it is up to the reader to ultimately decide). For me, the latter part of the novel during which Do impersonate the military hero ends up being more of a compelling and convicting commentary on North Korean Society.
“Dr. Song turned to Jun Do. ‘Where we are from,’ he said, ‘stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change...but in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters” (121-122).
As Jun Do progresses through the novel, he learns that people’s identities are subordinate to what the state and The Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, declares to be true. Words or stories don’t matter. Facts and actions don’t matter. If doubt is cast over a situation, the North Korean government reserves the right to imprison, torture, or kill any person they please. Even General Ga (formerly Jun Do), a North Korean hero, fears the government greatly.
“The Dear Leader closed his eyes and smiled. I didn’t know which was worse—to displease him or to please him” (392). 
A Horror-Filled Reality

North Korean Propaganda
The characters in The Orphan Master’s Son fear all that they do. Their fates are subject to any ruling at the whim of the state in general or the Dear Leader in particular. Through his travels and impersonations, Jun Do finds that the rulings of a megalomaniacal leader ring incredibly true. As a result, the reader grieves in Do’s losses and cheers in Do’s victories.

Living through nightmares, Jun Do reveals the mystery and frightening nature of North Korea. The reader learns through Jun Do’s journey the true meaning of independence, freedom of speech, love, and sacrifice. This story brings to life the story of my student, one who actually had to live through the North Korean reality. I was moved by his story, and astounded at the truths of the North Korean state. As it functions both as fiction and as a report on the issues North Korean’s actually face, I think The Orphan Master's Son is a must read due to its timeliness as well as the fact that it is based partially in reality.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted By: Andrew Jacobson

Affiliate Links:  
Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Television Show Review: Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire: Season One created by Terence Winter (Home Box Office, Leverage Management, Closest to the Hole Productions)

Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, and Kelly Macdonald.

In Praise of the Anti-Hero 

Not to say that the anti-hero is a recent development in storytelling, but it seems like the last ten years have seen a rise in the flawed protagonist. Whether Dexter Morgan in Dexter, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Don Draper in Mad Men, many current shows extol depravity and require the viewer to root for the “bad guy”. Boardwalk Empire’s Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) is another character to add to this list. Boardwalk Empire: Season One tells the tale of prohibition-era Atlantic City and the politician who rules the city with equal parts virtue and vice.

A Portrait of an Anti-Hero 

Nucky Thompson, the principle character in Boardwalk Empire, is a corrupt and powerful treasurer that controls Atlantic City. With prohibition cutting off the alcohol that fuels the New Jersey city, Nucky establishes a bootlegging ring to quench the thirst of his constituents. In one of his first liquor deals, Nucky partners with Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), a New York kingpin and leader of the Jewish mafia. However, Nucky’s driver, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), and Chicago gangster, Al Capone (Stephen Graham), foil the deal, murdering the rum runners and commandeering the liquor to the city of Chicago.

With this act of betrayal, Season One tells the story of the brewing tensions between Atlantic City and New York as Nucky Thompson and Arnold Rothstein seek to control the bootlegging market.

While Nucky fights gangsters in the alley and engages in political discourse on Main Street, he takes a liking to Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), a woman widowed as a direct result of the corrupt acts of Nucky. This romantic sub-thread runs alongside the gangsterism the series offering the soft side of a tough character.

How Much Sin Can You Live With? 

The construction of the character, both through excellent writing and impeccable acting by Steve Buscemi, provides a portrait of a person who recognizes the difficulties of life. A product of a difficult home and well-versed in the moral ambiguity of political office, Nucky walks the tightrope between brash immorality and his strict Catholic upbringing. Strikingly, he mentions in a conversation on his actions,
“We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with” (Episode 12).
No matter our personal convictions on the definition of sin, Nucky’s proclamation rings true to a certain level. Many of us have betrayed a friend; many of us have cheated, lied, and stolen. For every one of us, our moral compass is skewed by these gray areas. To give a modern parallel, the pirating of movies is ok for one and an immoral evil for another. In the 1920s and today, ingesting alcohol offers no significance for some and perilous significance for others. The question then becomes how much sin can you live with?

It seems like the rise of the anti-hero in popular narratives suggests that we deal with moral gray areas in life. We have to fire people and we feel bad about it. We drive past the beggar asking for a dollar. We make promises; we break them. Perhaps we are drawn to characters like Nucky Thompson because, in the real world, our actions to a certain extent reflect his.

Boardwalk Empire: Season One is a fantastic beginning to a hopefully long-running and stunning series. If you love the anti-hero, HBO shows, or prohibition-era dramas, I highly recommend Boardwalk Empire.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

Affiliate Links:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Album Review: Scars & Stories

Scars & Stories by The Fray (Epic, 2012, 45 minutes)

The Fray is an American rock band from Denver, Colorado. Schoolmates Isaac Slade and Joe King formed the band in 2002, and achieved success in 2005 with their debut album. As a band, they’ve remained at the top of the Billboard charts, and have been nominated for four Grammy awards.

When a Musician Is no Longer a Musician

I tried, I really did. I started listening to Scars & Stories hoping that something had changed, that some musical revelation had appeared. But, alas, it didn’t. I’m a big fan of what can be called “musicianship”, and The Fray falls short of this concept with Scars & Stories. Simply put, there’s no growth on this record. Musicians cease to be musicians and just mindless drones when each song sounds the same as the next, and when each album sounds the same as the last.

On my first listen in the comfort of my apartment, the signature “emo” vocals of frontman Isaac Slade were prominent. The first track, “Heartbeat” opens in a power rock theme, and I was intrigued. With lyrics like “I wanna kiss your scars tonight,” however, I was left a little unimpressed due to the teenage, angst-ridden lyrics.

I walked away from the stereo as it continued to pump The Fray through the apartment, did some dishes, and came back to see why the track hadn’t changed. It had changed twice. The band had just “continued” the song with new lyrics in a 4/4 power rock formula that they had previously established in the early 2000s.
In Praise of Something Different

Producer Brendan O’Brien (known for his work with Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against The Machine) has his fingerprints all over Scares & Stories. I think that the overall musicianship of the band, however, leaves something to be desired. While there are some creative instances in the album, the rest of the production falls short. The best track, as far as I’m concerned, would be the song “1961” where there is actually a different drum beat, different feel, layered textures, and some modicum of thought. The piano hits on some syncopated offbeats, which at least creates something new and intriguing.

A producer does want to fashion a signature sound for a band which is easily identifiable, but the sound can become too signature. This is the case with The Fray. The Fray’s original album was something new and fresh, and something that a listener could get into. Over the years, the sound, while still signature, has become mundane. Thus, the sound ceased to be a signature and is now only boring and stale. If bands don’t grow they go the way of Duran Duran, into a state of pure irrelevance and past memory.

Brendan O’Brien tried his best on this one, and I imagine that there’s a sad chance it will dominate the charts because Scars & Stories is catchy. However, I think that the mediocrity that this album provides will leave critics and thoughtful listeners unimpressed. If The Fray continues with this now monochromatic and vapid formula, they will be extinct very shortly.

Verdict: 1 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Affiliate Links:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Book Review: Zone One

Zone One: A Novel by Colson Whitehead (New York: Doubleday, 2011. 272 pp)

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan. He attended Harvard College and afterward he began working as a reviewer for The Village Voice. Out of the gate, Whitehead’s fiction gained acclaim when his first novel, The Intuitionist, won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Voices Award. His work has earned him the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. Also, Whitehead has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Knives and Reason 

Aristotle, when expanding on his defense of virtue ethics, contends that humans act ethically when they maximize the function for which they were created. Just like a knife acts “virtuously” when it is sharp enough to cut, Aristotle suggests that humans act virtuous when they engage in reasoning. The ability to use the complex human brain for social ends allows humans to act ethically in comparison to other animals.

Supposing Aristotle is correct in his assertions, do we, then, act immorally when we refuse to use our reasoning faculties? Or do we act amorally? What happens when external forces cause humans to act strictly on instinct? While reading Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie novel, Zone One, I couldn't help but consider ethics in dystopia.

What Happens After a Zombie Outbreak?

Zone One's Gary from The Composites 
Set in Manhattan, “Zone One” signifies a section of the city zoned for rehabilitation. The book’s protagonist, Mark Spitz—not the Olympic swimmer, this Mark Spitz earned his nickname fighting zombies—works on a three-person sweeper team with Gary, an ADD and trigger-happy individual, and Kaitlyn, the team leader and rule abider. The sweeper team searches every nook and cranny of building after building searching for zombie stragglers.

Before the book’s narrative began, an army of marines choppered into Manhattan on a mission to retake the city. During this time, wave after wave of zombies perished under heavy machine-gun fire. While Uptown remains infested with the undead, “Zone One” holds a minimal number of stragglers. While most malicious zombies instinctively ran into the teeth of the machine gun fire, a select few “malfunction” serenely remaining in places of supposed importance in their former lives. These stragglers are the zombies that the trio is charged to kill.

If You Look Back, You’re a Pillar of Salt 

Throughout the novel, Mark Spitz pauses to recollect the carnage that has occurred after “Last Night”—the name for the day that the zombie infliction took hold. We learn of the standard zombie narrative through his clouded memory. A disease breaks out; panic ensues; and everyone learns to fight for themselves. Often times, Mark Spitz cannot fathom how he has made it thus far:
“He was a thorough, inveterate B. It was his road. He studied for hours and there it waited for him, circled in red ink, oddly welcoming, silently forgiving. Or he refused to open his books and gorged instead on a prime-time platter of sitcoms: he’d still get a B. It was a little play he performed each week and he hit his marks instinctively, stalking the boards of mediocrity. He was not unintelligent; in fact, his instructors agreed that he was often quite perceptive and canny in his contributions to discussion, a ‘true pleasure to have in the classroom.’ The adjectives in his report cards, drawn from a special teachers’ collection of mild yet approving modifiers, described an individual of broader gifts than implied by the grades delivered at the end of each term. All the parts were there. Extra screws, even. There was just something wrong in the execution” (56). 
A Phoenix Rising from the Ashes 

Years after Last Night, organized reconstruction begins. Somewhat comically, the headquarters of the “American Phoenix” buds in Buffalo.
“He’d never been to Buffalo, and now it was the exalted foundry of the future. The Nile, the Cradle of Reconstruction. All the best and brightest (and, most important, still breathing) had been flown up to Buffalo, where they got the best grub, reveled in 24-7 generators and uncurtailed hot showers on command. In turn, they had to rewind catastrophe. Rumor was they had two of the last Nobel laureates working on things up there—useful ones, none of the Peace Prize or Literature stuff—chowing down on hearty brain-fortifying grub, scavenged fish oil and whatnot. If they could reboot Manhattan, why not the entire country? These were the contours of the new optimism” (35).

Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder 

Photo by Andrew C. Mace
However, the characters in this rebuilding state live in a daily stupor. Having learned to survive by instinct, the people—Mark Spitz included—in a certain sense have lost a part of their humanity. Whitehead introduces a term early in the novel called PASD.
“One canny psychotherapist—Dr. Neil Herkimer, who’d made a fortune in the days before the flood with a line of self-help books imparting ‘The Herkimer Solution to Human Unhappiness’—delivered the big buzzword of the moment: PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder… Everyone suffered from PASD. Herkimer put it at seventy-five percent of the surviving population, with the other twenty-five percent under the sway of preexisting mental conditions that were, of course, exacerbated by the great calamity. In the new reckoning, a hundred percent of the world was mad. Seemed about right” (54).
With the entire world living in PASD, has humanity lost the defining quality of humanness? At one point, Mark Spitz proclaims,
“He missed shame and guilt and a time when something higher than dumb instinct directed his actions” (161).
Would Aristotle conclude that humanity has lost its ability to act virtuously? I would think so. Without the guiding conscience of reason, the basic survival instinct has altered what it means to be human in Zone One. Humanity, as always, reveals itself to be a persevering bunch, but PASD makes reconstruction all the much harder.

Difficult to Remember 

On the whole, Zone One left me entertained. But I felt that it was weak in a few places. Most glaringly, when Whitehead directs the reader into the past dissecting the events around the apocalypse, the narrative becomes confusing. Many seemingly insignificant characters receive detailed passages while the stories of some seemingly significant characters fizzle without resolution. Perhaps Whitehead intended to display the corroded nature of human reasoning in these flashbacks. If you encountered multiple years of hell where each day could realistically be your last, would you remember specifics from the past? Even if this motif was Whitehead’s intention, the confusion of the flashbacks hinders the overarching narrative.

But despite my reservations, I enjoyed this book. If you love the zombie genre, speculative fiction, or a literary master jumping into genre fiction, Zone One is an excellent choice for your to-be-read pile.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

Affiliate Links:

  Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend

The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend by Thomas Malory; adapted by Peter Ackroyd (New York: Viking Adult, 2011. 336 pp)

Peter Ackroyd, CBE, is a British biographer and novelist. His biographies include those of Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and Sir Thomas Moore.

Sir Thomas Malory (1405-1471) was an English writer and poet, and compiler of Le Morte d'Arthur.

In Praise of Honor and Valor (Or Honour and Valour)

Always a fan of the legend of King Arthur and his knights, I’ve found enjoyment in the chivalry and altogether fascinating exploits within the collective. It’s an unforgettable story of love, adventure, treachery, and magical escapades. The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend is an attempt by Peter Ackroyd to bring the classic story by Sir Thomas Malory into the modern idiom, but I’m not sure he succeeds.

The Beginning 

Arthur is raised by a knight, and becomes king when he finds his destiny enclosed in a stone.
“It has been ordained by God that the one who takes up this sword will reign over the people of London set up a great cry. ‘We will have Arthur to be sovereign over us. There must be no more delay! The day has come. God’s will be done!’” (14-15).

The story begins just like you remember it, and Arthur became king. Merlin tells Arthur he will be victorious in battle and a mighty king as well. But, the retold tales are still the same: Merlin, The Sword and the Stone, Arthur and Guinevere, Morgan le Fay, Tristram and Isolde, The Quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur’s mendacious son Mordred, and Lancelot’s betrayal of Arthur with his unrequited love for Guinevere.

So, no real surprises here and not much to tell outside of why Ackroyd’s version may have some merit.

Same ‘Ol Same ‘Ol 

In the attempt to retell the story of King Arthur, Ackroyd ends up dumbing it down more than bringing it into a new, fresh state. He could have done much more to enliven the story, but he simply translated it into a somewhat monotonous storyline that leaves much to be desired, especially if you’ve read the version by Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte d'Arthur).

Sure, Malory is a bit hard to get into with all the old English, but once you’ve gained some momentum it’s pretty fascinating. Perhaps I’ve romanticized the Malory version, but the Ackroyd version, to me at least, leaves something to be desired.

There have been countless editions of the classic Malory story over the years, my favorite of which, already modernized, is The Once and Future King by T.H. White. So, my question is, was a newer version really that necessary?

At the same time, however, I think The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend is still worthwhile as it does do some justice to the Arthurian legends of old. But, if it were me, I’d stick with Malory’s original story.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Affiliate Links:
Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century

Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church by Walter Rauschenbusch; edited by Paul Raushenbush (New York: HarperOne, 2008. 400 pp)

Walter Rauschenbusch was the leading proponent of the Social Gospel Movement whose mission was to reform society to meet the social needs of the poor through the ministrations of the institutional church. PBS recently called him “one of the most influential American religious leaders of the last 100 years.”

Paul Raushenbush, great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, was associate dean or religious life and the chapel at Princeton University and current religion editor at the Huffington Post. He has served as an associate minister at the Riverside Church in New York City and has been involved in ministry to street youth in Seattle and Sӑo Paulo, Brazil.

An Allegory of the 19th Century 

Walter Rauschenbusch begins the fifth chapter of Christianity and the Social Crisis with a poetic allegory of the 19th Century. Upon the end of that century, Rauschenbusch imagines the 19th century descending into “the vaulted chamber of the Past”, where previous centuries congregate to discuss the perils and pieties of their respective eras. With unprecedented material success accumulated in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the 19th Century metaphorically pats its own back. Interjecting, the 1st Century enquires whether or not the 19th Century has solved the problem of hunger. Hearing this question, the 19th Century lowers its head realizing that another hundred years have passed without any progress on the core issues of human suffering.

By this metaphor, Rauschenbusch pursues the notion of a social gospel. Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century is an updated edition of Rauschenbusch’s original publication titled, Christianity and the Social Crisis which graced best-seller lists 100 years ago. Inventively, Walter’s grandson, Paul has included responses at the end of each chapter from influential theologians.

The Social Aspect of the Gospel 

In Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch begins with a reappraisal of the gospel. Since Christianity had for centuries emphasized the personal salvation of human beings, Rauschenbusch reassesses this principle citing the gospels.

While he refuses to completely ignore the future salvific aims of Jesus, Rauschenbusch asserts that Jesus carried revolutionary social aims. He writes,
“Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master” (42).
Historically speaking, the aims of Jesus were social in nature. When he spoke of the Kingdom of God, he did not mean a heavenly future exclusively; Jesus also situated the Kingdom of God in the present, an attainable society toward which disciples must work.

The Failure of the Church 

Given this position, Rauschenbusch decries the classic self-serving and individualistic tendencies of the Church. Instead of focusing on social justice, the church looked inward. Rauschenbusch warns,
“The Church was able to offer the most enticing eternal rewards to those who gave to her. Thus she discouraged the giving of aid from man to man and encouraged the concentration of giving on herself. To some extent this systematized charity, and an ever larger percentage of the gifts never reached the poor” (152).
In other words, by linking eternal rewards to service of the church and by lining the church coffers with money instead of giving alms to the poor, the Church neglects the social aims of Jesus and replaces them with a hollow theology of personal salvation and increasing monetary power. Clearly, Rauschenbusch possesses a low view of the Church institution.

The Social Crisis 

Walter Rauschenbusch
Without the church acting in accordance with the marginalized of society to pursue social reconstruction, the economic reality of the early 1900s is harsh, to put it nicely. With capitalists holding monopolies on private property, the majority of Americans carry the work of their hands as their only economic bargaining chip.

Throughout Christianity and the Social Crisis, Rauschenbusch illustrates many depressing scenarios for the economically powerless. Speaking in terms of which I am acutely aware, he notes,
“I can conceive of nothing so crushing to all proper pride as for a workingman to be out of work for weeks, offering his work and his body and soul at one place after the other, and to be told again and again that nobody has any use for such a man as he” (195).
Such words resonate in our current setting with many recent college graduates encountering the worst job market in decades.

The Church, the State, and the Social Utopia 

With these harsh realities in mind, Rauschenbusch believes that an alignment of the church with social reconstruction offers opportunities to unlock a social utopia. A man of pristine optimism, Rauschenbusch suggests,
“Theology must become Christocentric; political economy must become anthropocentric. Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it put man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that” (301).
This view, later defined in Christian-communistic terms, suggests that the Church acts as a partner with other social institutions. Together, all can work toward the social utopia where people do not suffer from want or need.

What about Communal Evil? 

Nevertheless, Rauschenbusch’s belief in the goodness of humanity blinds him to the possibility of communal badness. In a response to the final chapter of Christianity and the Social Crisis, Jim Wallis argues,
“It is fair to say that [Rauschenbusch] not only failed to anticipate any of [Communism’s sordid] history but also generally missed communism’s potential for collective evil. His almost utopian dreams for the future, at the height of the progressive era and at the beginning of the century, reveal a naïveté about human nature and sin that was characteristic of the time” (344).
Although many Evangelicals find Rauschenbusch’s Christology to teeter dangerously on the edge of heresy, I am not too concerned with Rauschenbusch’s views on the divine nature of Jesus. From a perspective at the dawn of a new century, the glaring mistake in Rauschenbusch’s ideology is his optimism. Given the opportunity to operate society from collective principles, the communist methodology to date has failed precisely because of humanity’s capability for collective evil.

The Crisis Continues 

Walter Rauschenbusch recognizes the failure of the 19th century. Even though many hailed the wealth accumulated in that century, Rauschenbusch knows that further work must be done to accomplish the social aims of the gospel. With beautiful prose and timeless arguments (for the most part), Rauschenbusch recognizes the importance of social aims in Christianity. Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century is a must read for all Christians and could even inform the opinions of those who do not hold Christian beliefs.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

Affiliate Links:

Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: Wild Thing

Wild Thing: A Novel by Josh Bazell (Little, Brown, and Company, 2012. 388 pp)

Josh Bazell has a B.A. in writing from Brown University and an M.D. from Colombia University. His first book is an international bestseller entitled Beat the Reaper, which has been published in thirty-two languages, and was one of Time’s ten best novels of 2009.

Hit-man Turned Doctor/Investigator 

In 2009, author Josh Bazell introduced the world to Pietro Brnwa/Peter Brown/Dr. Lionel Azimuth, a mafia hit-man/doctor/bodyguard in his widely acclaimed novel, Beat the Reaper. When I opened it, I don’t know what I expected, but definitely not what I picked up. It was a thriller, with some amazing commentary and comedy interlaced within. So I picked up Wild Thing, the next novel starring Peter Brown. It has received positive and negative reviews for various reasons, but I think the reasons Beat the Reaper was so successful are still very much present in his newest offering. It still is an amazingly humorous novel, with even more hilarious footnotes, and an intriguing storyline as well.

Dr. Lionel Azimuth (our protagonist) is in the witness protection program due to his work with the mob as a hit-man, and the book is written as if it were his journal, with many witty asides to the reader. Now a doctor on a cruise ship, his life is both comfortable and easy. He’s not the most educated doctor in the world, as he was rejected by American universities, and was forced to get his medical degree from a university in Mexico.

Azimuth is then called into a reclusive billionaire's employ. The wealthy man, Rec Bill, offers Azimuth an exorbitant amount of money to go searching along with a catastrophic paleontologist named Violet Hurst for a fabled lake monster (think Loch Ness) in the bottom of White Lake.
“What Violet Hurst describes as a catastrophic paleontology is primarily the mix of sociology, anthropology, and ecology...sometimes called either environmental sociology or human ecology” (352-353).

The White Lake Monster

Photo by
The theories behind this fabled monster of White Lake are numerous. Bazell organizes the novel into sections exploring the theories, from murder to hoax. As far as the theory of a hoax goes, there are a couple stories presented (presented in the succeeding quotations) that are a little hard to believe.
“As Autumn starts to breaststroke back toward the south end of the lake, Benjy explodes out of the water in front of her, visible to mid-chest and vomiting a dark rope of blood that slaps her like something from a bucket. Then he gets yanked back under. He’s gone. The heat of his blood is gone too. It’s like Autumn imagined the whole thing. But Autumn knows she didn’t imagine it. That what she’s just seen is something terrible and permanent—and which might be about to happen to her. She turns and sprint-swims for the rocky beach at the base of the cliff. Full-out crawl, no breathing allowed. Swim or die” (5).
Two children swimming in a lake get pulled under by some creature. The greater likelihood is that they were killed somehow. But, the people of White Lake are both tired of the stories, and scared of the creature. One to survive the attack is named Brisson,
“Brisson wakes up with a strong urge to twitch his left leg. Breathes in air that’s pure hot rotten fish, and chokes. Looks down. His left leg, to mid-thigh, is in the mouth of a gigantic black snake stretching out of White Lake. The snake’s rocky head is shaped like a piece of pie, with its eyes on the sides of the wedge like on an eagle’s. The pupils are vertical slits. The snake’s teeth don’t look like snake teeth, though. They’re serrated triangles, with just their tips pressing into his flesh...The snake doesn’t let him go. It raises its body partly out of the water to gain leverage. It’s no snake. It’s got shoulders” (32).
Because of all these stories, a local man named Reggie sets up a lengthy expedition where he takes rich people wanting to have a chance to see the monster on a tour. Violet and Lionel sign up for the tour, and an intriguing story of epic proportions ensues.

Research and Footnotes 
Photo by Rob Watski

Ultimately what makes the book interesting isn’t the plot itself, but rather the copious amounts of research (there’s a lengthy appendix and sources section at the end of the novel) and footnotes that go into the novel. Since the novel is written as a journal of Dr. Azimuth, the footnotes are many, and frankly hilarious. For those of us (like myself) that have trained ourselves to skip over the footnotes, I’d say the whole point of the novel is actually to read them. They’re more hilarious and entertaining than the plot itself. An example,
“The singular of ‘triceps’ is ‘triceps,’ because ‘triceps’ means ‘three heads,’ referring to how the muscle splits at one end into oh, shit, I drifted off there. ‘Biceps’ and ‘quadriceps’ are similar” (76).
Since the investigation of the lake monster is as close to a plot as the book gets, the whole point of the novel is really to get the humor in the footnotes section and laugh out loud at the randomness it provides.

Beat the Reaper 

Wild Thing is a fantastic novel, but Lionel Azimuth/Pietro Brnwa isn’t actually in any danger in this novel. So, for me, the “thrill” is missing. I do really recommend this novel, as it’s hilarious and intriguing, and the investigation of a lake monster is fascinating. Its extremely vulgar language (I counted upwards of fourteen f-bombs on a single page) is a novelty, but it frankly lacks the finesse and thrill of its predecessor Beat the Reaper. I still thoroughly recommend the book, but I think you should pick up Bazell’s first novel before you get going on this one.

Verdict: 3 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Affiliate Links:

Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis by Charles E. Curran (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002. 272 pp)

Born in New York, Charles Curran received his B.A. from St. Bernard’s College. Upon earning two doctorates in theology in Rome, he was ordained for the Diocese of Rochester. In 1965, Curran was appointed to the faculty of Catholic University of America. Throughout his distinguished career, Curran has been in conflict with the Church’s teaching on various moral issues. Despite maintaining a position of “faithful dissent,” the Vatican declared that Curran step down from faculty in 1986. Now, Curran serves as the Elizabeth Sherlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University.

The Industrial Revolution 

The rise of the Industrial Revolution caused Christians to reconsider their preconceived notions of work and ethics. While society previously functioned on an agrarian-based economy with subsistence acting as the core value, the Industrial Revolution introduced the notion of capital. Although Locke primarily proposed property as a God-given gift ensuring survival in nature, the Industrial Revolution transformed property into a self-generating monetary giant. Capitalists could leverage property in order to gain more property and the Church needed to address this shift. Beginning in the late 19th century, the Catholic Church began noting the social issues of laborers and the poor in a body of thought now known as “Catholic social teaching.”

While Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching exists as a holistic ethical position, for the sake of brevity I will focus on the movement’s methodology before applying it to economic thought.


In order to evaluate the influence of Catholic social teaching, Curran begins with the theological methodology behind the movement. But first, it is important to note that Catholic theology always emphasizes the notion of a “both-and” approach instead of an “either-or” approach. The word “catholic” means universal.

Theology in the Catholic tradition strives for a universal appeal. If an issue caters to a “both-and” approach over an “either-or” approach, Catholic theology points to the inclusive option. This notion is easily seen when viewing Curran’s proposed canon for Catholic social teaching, the past 100 years portray shifts in ideology yet the overall thread of “catholic-ness” remains the same.

Reason and Natural Law 

Photo by Ramon Duran
To illustrate the theological methodology of Catholic social teaching, Curran separates the positions in to pre- and post-Vatican II. Pre-Vatican II, Curran suggests that Catholic social teaching emphasizes reason and natural law; Post-Vatican II, Curran suggests a shift toward a preferential option for the poor. Beginning with Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum novarum, we clearly see the influence of Thomas Aquinas and the elevation of reason and natural law in theological methodology. Curran notes:
Rerum novarum recognizes the important role of reason as a source for moral teaching and frequently invokes natural law and its principles. The first part of the encyclical proves the human right to private property, in opposition to the socialist position. The right to have property as one’s own is based on human nature and is one of the chief points of distinction between human beings and all other animals” (26).
Curran contends that the normative position of private property finds purchase in Rerum novarum precisely because of the laws of nature and the reasonableness of the position. This line of reasoning runs directly from Thomistic principles.

Preferring the Poor 

However, a shift from natural law and reason governing theological methodology occurs post-Vatican II. No longer did natural law offer the citation for universal statements. Catholic teachers, with the help of the new field of liberation theology, began to recognize the different lenses by which human beings view the world. Reason, then, is not a universal truth created in Rome, but rather a construction influenced by regional context. Curran suggests that Catholic social teaching shifts to a theological methodology of solidarity:
“Solidarity helps us see the ‘other’—whether that other is a person, people, or nation—not just as an object to be exploited but as our neighbor and helper, called with us to share in the banquet of life which all are invited equally by God. The church has an evangelical duty to take her stand beside poor people, helping them satisfy their basic rights without losing sight of other groups and the common good” (36).
Without condemning the previous teaching documents that rely on reason and natural law for its premises, post-Vatican II documents shift to a theological focus on the preferential option for the poor.

Ethical Methodology: Historical Consciousness and Individualism 

From theology, an ethical methodology flows. Curran proposes that Catholic social teaching focuses on the shift to historical consciousness (even though John Paul II’s writing opposes this concept) and a greater emphasis on individualism.

To begin, where previous ethical trends in the Catholic Church focused on immutable truth, Catholic social teaching centers on historical consciousness. Curran states,
“Historical consciousness gives more importance to the particular, the contingent, the historical, and the changing” (54).
The shift to historical consciousness recognizes the particular context of cultures. The context of Rome differs from that of Latin America. As such, Catholic social teaching desires to remain ethically conscious of these differences.

Secondly, Catholic social teaching emphasizes the person as a subject. Curran argues,
“The Catholic tradition in general and Catholic social teaching in particular traditionally have emphasized the basic dignity of the human being who is an image of God through reason and the power of self-determination” (67).
For this reason, Catholic social tradition tends to recognize the rights of the marginalized whether it is the poor in society or the exploited workers in urban factories. Ethically speaking, a person who is an image of God deserves basic human dignity.

An Economic Order: Where Catholic Social Teaching, Locke, and Wesley Meet
Photo by Catholic Church (England and Wales)
Upon settling theological and ethical methodology, Curran explores the ways in which Catholic social teaching informs the economic order. He concludes that the movement influences the both purpose of material goods and wealth and the preferential option for the poor, among other issues.

Similar to John Locke’s argument for private property, Catholic social teaching operates under the premise of private property in the economic order. Leaning on the principles of dominion found in Genesis, Catholic social teaching affirms both the intrinsic value of work and the value of the laborer completing the work.

Even though Catholic social teaching affirms the intrinsic right to private property, it differs from Locke’s conception of private property specifically in its instrumentality. Curran writes,
“In this life, private property must always be justified by how it relates to the destiny of the goods of creation to serve the needs of all. Private property is not the first and most important reality with regard to the understanding of material goods and wealth” (181).
While Locke and proponents of Catholic social teaching agree on the principle of private property, Catholic social teaching differs from Lock in that private property exists for others not for the individual.

Likewise, Catholic social teaching resembles the theology of John Wesley when it promotes the preferential option for the poor. As mentioned earlier, Catholic social teaching believes that the plight of the poor carries special consideration. As such, Catholic social teaching promotes a distributive justice similar to Wesley. The movement suggests that justice function proportionally, not arithmetically. Meaning, Catholic social teaching promotes justice that disproportionally taxes the rich instead of a system that taxes equally.

Speaking in economic terms, Curran states,
“Justice for the worker insists on the fundamental importance of the material needs of the worker but calls for something in addition—active participation and sharing by the worker in the enterprise” (195).
Much like Wesley’s third principle of “giving all you can” in his sermon, “The Use of Money,” the distributive justice in Catholic social teaching urges the affluent to give to the poor. In business terms, Catholic social teaching strives to widen ownership. Where capitalism usually concentrates power at the top amongst a few people, Catholic social teaching desires greater rights for the workers.


Catholic social teaching addresses the economic shift from agrarian to industrial methods. Beginning with a catholic theology that includes reason, natural law, and a preference for the poor, Catholic social teaching professes an ethic that promotes historical consciousness and individualism. While similar to Locke in the promotion of private property, Catholic social teachings takes a further step suggesting that private property exists for external ends. The movement also agrees with Wesley in promoting a distributive justice that requests a “give-all-you-can” attitude of Christian people.

If you are interested in Catholic theology and another way of doing business, I recommend Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

Affiliate Links:

  Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Review: At Last

At Last: A Novel by Edward St. Aubyn (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011. 266pp)

Edward St. Aubyn is a British author and journalist. Educated at Westminster school and Keble College at Oxford University, he is the author of five novels on the Melrose family, one of which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Dysfunction and Abuse

Last in the series of novels based on protagonist, Patrick Melrose, At Last finds Patrick broke, divorced, suicidal, and about to bury his mother. Appropriately named, At Last is a sigh of sweet relief that the life of Patrick Melrose might be getting better. Upon starting the novel I realized with some disdain that I had missed a large portion of Patrick Melrose’s life. Overlooking the previous novels, Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and the award-winning Mother's Milk, I, at first, thought the novel left something to be desired. But, then I researched Melrose’s sordid fictional past, and the novel became much more interesting.

To give a brief synopsis, Patrick’s life has been wrought with misfortune and despair. At five years of age, in the novel Never Mind, Patrick was raped by his father, which, sad to say was a self-portrait of the author himself. In Bad News, Patrick enters his twenties and gets addicted to every substance imaginable, while trotting down the all-too-familiar patch of narcissism and overall bleakness, much like the author in real life. In Some Hope, Patrick finally tells someone what his father did to him as a child, and Mother’s Milk chronicles the life of Patrick as a family man, and the disinheritance of his mother’s estate.

The Burial of the Matriarch 

At Last finally begins (pun intended), and Patrick buries his mother.
“Patrick had little idea what to expect from the ceremony. He had been on a business trip to America at the time of his mother’s death and pleaded the impossibility of preparing anything to say or read, leaving Mary to take over the arrangements. He had only arrived back from New York yesterday, just in time to go to Bunyon’s funeral parlour, and now that he was sitting in a pew next to Mary, picking up the order of service for the first time, he realized how unready he was for this exploration of his mother’s confusing life” (112).
With the matriarch of the Melrose family now out of the picture, Patrick is forced to suffer through some unpleasant family members. In particular, his aunt Nancy is voraciously avaricious and predatory. With sharp wit, St. Aubyn writes,
“Oh Jesus, thought Patrick, let me out of here. He imagined himself disappearing through the floor with a shovel and some bunk-bed slats, the theme music of The Great Escape humming in the air. He was crawling under the crematorium through fragile tunnels, when he felt himself being dragged backwards by Annette’s maddening voice” (136).
Foibles for All
Edward St. Aubyn
I submit that St. Aubyn is perhaps the newest in a long line of authors who comment on elite society. Patrick is well-off, an aristocrat by any standard, and those who he surrounds himself with in the novel (mainly his family) are just as messed up as he. Even minor characters in the novel surge with foibles, from extreme narcissism to crudeness and hypocrisy, the novel ends up being a commentary on higher society overall.

With his delicate prose, St. Aubyn tells the story that the demons of one’s past are forever present, and that redemption may not always happen. The novel is one not of hope, but of reluctant acceptance.
“What exactly had he been mourning? Not his mother’s death—that was mainly a relief. Not her life—he had mourned her suffering and frustration years ago when she started her decline into dementia. Nor was it his relationship with her, which he had long regarded as an effect on his personality rather than transaction with another person. The pressure he had felt today was something like the presence of infancy, something far deeper and more helpless than his murderous relationship with his farther...mourning was not the word for this experience. He felt frightened buy also excited” (260).
Though this novel has some high prose, wit, intellect, and compassion, I think it would have been much better for me to start at the beginning of the series. Truthfully, after this novel I think I will go back and start from the beginning to better understand the life of St. Aubyn mirrored in his character Patrick Melrose. The layers of life are too great to just stick in one novel, and the strata should be unveiled one layer at a time. Unfortunately I started at the bottom, where I should have begun at the top. I think this piece rather reminds me of Jane Eyre or something the Bronté sisters would write. Should you like their commentary of high society, At Last is assuredly for you.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Another take:  The New York Times

Affiliate Links:
Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Film Review: The Artist

The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius (La Petite Reine, La Classe Américaine, JD Prod, PG-13, 100 minutes)

Starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, and John Goodman.

How Did We Survive Ten Years Ago? 

Do you ever feel like life is passing you by? Do you remember life before a smart phone? Considering the myriad of people daily glued to their iPhone, a smart-phone-less world seems unfathomable. Likewise, what magic innovation will make us look back on 2012 and chuckle at how primitive we used to live? This sense of change surrounds the Academy-Award-nominated film, The Artist.

Set in Hollywood from 1927 to 1932, The Artist portrays the fall of the silent film and the rise of the “talkies”. Using black-and-white techniques and no dialogue, The Artist pays homage to the golden age of cinema.

Silence Is Golden

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin)) is a silent film star. Sharing the screen with his star sidekick and pet dog, Valentin signifies the best of a fledgling industry. Celebrating his latest premier, Valentin bumps into an admiring fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), and makes a show of the encounter for the press photographers.

The next day, Peppy and George’s picture appears on the front page of Variety. Encouraged by the uplifting headline, Peppy endeavors to become a movie star and signs up as an extra in the latest film. Smitten by Peppy, George encourages her to find her voice in the business and she begins to work her way up the credits.

After a couple years, the studio head, Al Zimmer (John Goodman), publicizes the end of silent film production and the beginning of talking pictures. Flippantly, George writes off the talking picture trend and begins funding his own silent pictures.

Peppy, on the other hand, signs with Zimmer’s studio as a headlining actress starring in the latest talking pictures. Coincidentally, both actors’ films debut in the wake of the 1929 stock-market crash. Having invested all of his money in his silent picture, George needs a hit in order to maintain financial viability.

In Defense of Acclaim 

On the whole, Michael Hazanavicius’ script breaks no boundaries. An entertaining but well-tread plot, The Artist gains acclaim for its production, cinematography, and acting.

First, the use of silence and black and white is powerful. For the most part, I felt like I was watching a move from the 1920s. From the lack of widescreen to the vintage score, I was caught up in the magic of a “new” medium as a person in the 1920s would have felt.

Yet, I wish they would have cast completely unknown actors. Even though I did not recognize the leads, having John Goodman play a crucial part was distracting. I know him from too many movies to suspend my disbelief.

The use of sound, however, mesmerizes. Without dialogue, the viewer relies on the score and the occasional vintage caption in order to infer the plot. When The Artist chooses to use sound, the effect becomes all the more powerful. Upon learning of the talking picture, George has a nightmare depicted in sound; his glass clanks against the counter, his dog barks, and he hears laughter outside. These simple noises exist in stark contrast to the dreamy score that surrounds the rest of the film.

Second, the cinematography shines. In every scene, it seems like the camera is perfectly placed—not like a modern picture where it’s from an unfathomable angle, but from a classic perspective re-imagined. Whether filming the reflection of an actor or the feet, every shot feels both fresh and classic simultaneously.

Finally, the acting is impeccable. Of course, without sound the actors must over-accentuate in order to convey emotion. Such actions were continuously conveyed perfectly. Having seen George Clooney in The Descendants, Dujardin gets my vote, so far, for the best actor Academy Award. Dujardin’s performance is magical.

A Silent Film in 2012 = Brilliant? 

But I question whether The Artist receives its praise for the quality of the movie or for the idea it conveys. Yes, paying homage to the golden age of cinema by replicating it in modern society carries much to extol. Had this story, cinematography, and acting existed outside of a silent, black-and-white film, I’m not sure that I would have liked it as much.

Exploring change while remaining firm in a sense of nostalgia, The Artist reminisces on the beginning of the film industry. With fantastic production, cinematography, and acting, The Artist clearly deserves critical recognition, but I question whether its use of silence and black and white veils the less spectacular portions of the movie. Nevertheless, The Artist is worth a watch.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

Affiliate Links:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Film Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy directed by Tomas Alfredson (Focus Features, R, 128 minutes)

Starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.

Based on the Same Name 

Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by John le Carre, a former operations agent for the British agency of MI6, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy joins the long list of Oscar-nominated movies for 2011 based on bestselling novels that are perhaps better than the films of which they are based. The first in what is a trilogy of spy novels; the film depicts English spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) as he is pitted against a Soviet mole inside the MI6.

Silence as Suspense 

MI6 Headquarters, London
After a forced, disgraced retirement from MI6, George Smiley is thrust back into service to oust a mole from within the ranks of his former employer. Unsure of his new re-appointment, and obviously still bitter about his forced retirement, Gary Oldman is silent for almost thirty minutes at the beginning of the film. Much like in the novel, silence on the part George Smiley is persistent, and director Tomas Alfredson uses the silence as a means to both intrigue and frustrate the viewer. Silence adds to the suspense of the movie, as those like myself unfamiliar with what actual espionage would be like, expect exotic locations and huge explosions. The silence shows that no exotic location is needed, no huge action sequence, but rather intriguing puzzles that confound the viewer.

Cast with superstar British actors, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy introduces them one at a time. “Tinker” is the codename for Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), “Tailor” is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “Soldier” is Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and “Spy” would be the unknown mole in MI6 that “Beggarman”, or George Smiley, is trying to find throughout the film.


Not only does the silence add to the suspense of the movie, but the constant feeling of dread and paranoia certainly adds a feeling of weariness to the overall tension of the film. Sequestered meetings with ubiquitous brown tweed suits in closed rooms and quiet, dark conversations in shadowy corners of London add to an atmosphere of suspense and great pondering on the part of the audience.

While the movie doesn’t pander to the stereotypes of current thrillers, I posit that such a position makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy absolutely superb. Without the excessive explosions or exotic locations, this movie offers a cigarette-filled rendering of things past. With clues to ponder against the background of the poker-faced and quiet George Smiley, words pierce just as hard as bullets would in a lesser film. If you love suspense and intrigue, this movie is for you. However, if you don’t like thinking through things and have a hard time piecing clues together on your own, I would wait until DVD.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

Affiliate Links: