Friday, November 20, 2009

Slipping into Paradise by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson ****

Slipping into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand is a wonderful, contemporary introduction to New Zealand. I found the NZ history chapter (Fifty Important Dates in NZ History) very readable and interesting, as was the chapter on the Maori which walked the fine line between PC and full disclosure.

At the end of the day, the author (Holocaust-obsessed, vegetarian, academic, married to a lady 30 year younger) is so wildly enthusiastic about his recently adopted home, that the book, for all its obvious attempts for balance and impartiality, comes across like tourism propaganda. In spite of the unabashed cheer leading, the book is the best introduction to New Zealand available and I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in this small island country on the other side of the world.

If you're interested in a more comprehensive history of New Zealand, check out The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Bone People by Keri Hulme **

The Bone People by Keri Hulme is mystery by a Maori author rich in characterization and Maori culture. Kerewin Holmes, like much of New Zealand is a mixture of European and Moari ancestry. She is an artist, omnivorous reader, self-educated on a wide range of topics, but also spent a year in Japan to study Akido, not the spiritual stuff, but to learn to kick ass. Joe Gillayley is Maori and full of contradictions - the most central to the plot is his tender care and affection for Joe, a boy who washed ashore as the only survivor of a ship wreck, combined with his abusive discipline of Joe who is only six or eight at the most. That leaves Joe, the third player in this odd triangle. Joe has nightmares and phobias (doctors, French language) and periodic violent out bursts.

Throughout the story, the three share cigarettes, gambling, and great quantities of alcohol in their search to discover what drives each of them towards self-destruction.

A deep character study of alienation and an introduction to contemporary Maori culture, but a slow read.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E D Hirsch et al ***

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know is excellent bathroom reading with lots of general knowledge and a smattering cultural bias and propaganda. I kept the 1988 edition in my bathroom for months (the most recent is 2002), so the two decade retrospective made the point-of-views obvious, anachronisms revealing, and inaccuracies laughable ... especially recalling that E D Hirsch et al have set themselves up as the arbiters of the timeless knowledge "every American needs to know."
Radioactive waste: Present practice calls for encasing the waste ... and burying the containers deep underground in geologically stable locations.
Times Square: Known for its high levels of crime, including drug dealing, prostitution, and the sale of pornography.
The U S automobile industry, with only three major producers, has sometimes been cited as an example of an oligopoly.
IBM produced the first mechanical calculating machine in 1941 [ROFL].
Mainframe: A large, powerful computer system. A typical mainframe computer will fill a good-sized room.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo ***

Stop me if you've heard this one. When they discover Charlie Bone has magical powers, they send him to a special school where he champions the good and frees the sleeping princess (oh I mean girl). Regardless of the familiarity of the plot, Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo is a charming YA novel, with magical cats, good and evil grandmothers, an antique bookstore, a boy with talks to animals and another who listens to photographs.

This series (Children of the Red King) is a excellent choice for fantasy readers that are beyond Roald Dahl, but not quite ready for J K Rowling, perhaps on the same level as the C S Lewis's Narnia series, but without the heavy Christian allegory. (Even more deja vu: this book by a British author is published in the US by Scholastic.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly ****

Reprising their roles in The Poet, LA Times Reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI agent Rachel Walling pursue The Scarecrow, a combination genius computer hacker from MIT and sadistic serial killer. Mirroring current events, Jack has been laid-off due to competition from the Internet. When he uncovers this serial-killer story, he sees it as his best and final chance for a Pulitzer Prize. However events conspire against him, as he repeatedly becomes part of the story and thus disqualified from being the reporter.

While Michael Connelly delivers modicum of jeopardy and action, the story is basically whodunit, where much of the narrative revolves around the back and forth as Jack and Rachel try to figure out the Scarecrow, and he, in turn, leads them astray.

This is a cat-and-mouse mystery with considerable less violence than the subject of sexually-motivated torture and murder might suggest. All the worst violence discussed post facto and not shown.

Final note: As a supporter of MIT, I'm always glad to see the school's graduates portrayed as extraordinary intellects, though I regret the evil genius role. However, I recall the PR adage: "There is no such thing as bad publicity."