Friday, May 30, 2008

Book Review: Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives

Jim Sheeler's Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives provides an intimate, powerful, and often harrowing glimpse into the lives of people whose family members have died in the Iraq War. The book is a continuation and expansion of Sheeler's articles for the Rocky Mountain News, including his Pulitzer Prize winning "Final Salute," which he did in conjunction with photographer Todd Heisler. By expanding his initial articles, Sheeler gives us the opportunity to reflect on a situation that too many Americans turn a blind eye to, namely the consequences of war on those left behind.

Sheeler's book is remarkable in several respects. Despite the heartbreaking nature of the work, Final Salute is engrossing and very readable. More importantly, it is very accessible for those who have not had the situation of losing a loved one to war. Rather than emphasizing the uniqueness of these military families, Final Salute invites readers to gain a greater understanding of the pain of uncertainty and the heartbreak that comes with knowing about a loved one's death.

In order to do this, Sheeler discusses several soldiers who died in Iraq and the repercussions their deaths have had on their families. Rather than dedicating a section of the book to a single family, Sheeler makes the seemingly risky decision to divide his work into four parts, including "The Knock," "Reverberations," and "After the War, Stories." I say that this is seemingly risky because in a a less-talented writer's hands, this choice could make the book very difficult to follow. However, Sheeler successfully manages to interweave the different stories into a cohesive narrative. In some situations, the stories and the families literally connect; for instance, Sheeler shows how Kyle Burns's and Sam Holder's families form a bond with each other. Other connections remain figurative but are still powerful.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Final Salute is that it manages to navigate the political tightrope. As I noted in an earlier post, this book is apolitical and does not espouse any particular political agenda. What makes this remarkable is that Sheeler does not shy away from documenting his subjects' opinions regarding President Bush, the military, or the war in Iraq. By doing this, Sheeler offers a glimpse into the thoughts of these families who have made a considerable sacrifice.

In a sense, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives comes at a perfect time. With the slumping housing market, rising gas prices, and uncertain economy, the war in Iraq is not at the forefront of the American consciousness. Sheeler's work reminds us that, despite the economic troubles at home, we must never forget those who serve in the military and those they leave behind. The book ends with an epilogue that allows us to see what has happened with the families he has discussed. Fittingly, these pages provide a sense of continuation but not a sense of closure, for as Lieutenant Colonel Steve Beck (one of the casualty assistance officers Sheeler followed) says "It's not an ending. It's not a period at the end of their lives. It's a semicolon. The story will continue to be told."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Upcoming Review: Final Salute

I have just had half of my wisdom teeth removed and am taking a break from eating Jello and icing my right cheek to give a quick recommendation for a new book. Several years ago, Jim Sheeler and Todd Heisler followed several casualty assistance officers in the Marines to watch as these men had the daunting and unenviable task of telling families the worst news possible. Their experiences became the basis for the article "Final Salute," which was published in the Rocky Mountain News, won a number of recognitions and awards, including well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. Now Jim Sheeler has written a book called Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives that includes his experiences with Major Steve Beck and other CAOs. I just picked up the book today and am already halfway through it. I hope to finish it by this weekend so that I can get a review up on Monday.

For those of you who haven't read the original article, I strongly recommend that you do so. Although the article is about the Marines who died in the war, it is surprisingly apolitical and does not have a hidden agenda. The Rocky Mountain News site also has several slide shows narrated by Major Steve Beck and Katherine Cathey, whose husband died in Iraq. Just a quick warning: read it when you have plenty of time (it is a little lengthy).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ISO Likable Characters

Just in case you haven’t turned on a television or gone to the newsstand recently, the Sex and the City movie is opening this Friday. While I have seen an odd episode on cable (since they air reruns of this show approximately 20 times a day on various channels) I have never been a SATC aficionado, and I think I have figured out why. It isn’t the show’s lack of realism or the incredibly tacky and/ or expensive clothes worn by Carrie Bradshaw and company (even though these things annoy me to no end). What I have a real issue with is the fact that the main characters are, for the most part, incredibly dislikable. Carrie is self-absorbed, Charlotte alternates between being a neurotic princess and a Stepford wife, Miranda (who is probably the sanest one in the bunch) is reduced to being anxious and needy, and Samantha often just seems desperate.

Although I am picking on SATC, the majority (if not all) of television sitcom characters are annoying. While many of us enjoy watching the exploits of these characters in 30 or 60 minute intervals, we probably wouldn’t want to live next door to them or have them in our carpool. This shouldn’t come as any surprise; Seinfeld’s underrated finale pointed out that Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George are actually horrible, horrible people. However, the insight of Seinfeld is an exception; it seems that a number of television shows operate under the assumption that the characters within them are good (or at least amiable).

Besides the girls of SATC, there are the main characters in Will & Grace. When forced to think about it, I have a difficult time coming up with any redeeming qualities for Karen, Jack, Will, or Grace. They are funny (or at least mildly amusing) in small doses, but a regular diet of these four individuals would have me popping mood stabilizers and chasing them with gallons of Mai Tais. I also can’t imagine myself being friends with some of the characters on Friends; I never thought Rachel was good enough for Ross, and I would probably kill Phoebe if given the chance.

I suppose that nobody watches television looking for a mirror of reality; even reality television is as far removed from real life as an episode of ALF or Mork & Mindy. Perhaps what we like is to see caricatures of people from reality (the sexpot, the pseudo intellectual, the princess, the geek) in order to feel better about ourselves. Whatever the reason, I am hoping that the hype surrounding the Sex and the City movie goes away soon. However, if it doesn’t, at least I can console myself by reading Time Out New York’s articles by people who hate SATC.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Quality Time in the South

I'm sorry it has been a while since I've posted anything; one of my pet peeves is when blogs that I read don't get updated on a regular basis, so I feel bad that it has been over a week since my last post. However, I do have a good excuse: I am home for my sister's high school graduation.

While spending quality time in the Southeastern United States may not be everyone's idea of fun, it has been nice to see my family and friends and to remember some of the South's eccentricities. Although it is a little cliche, I'm always surprised at how much more laid-back people are here (at least compared to Boston). While this is usually a nice change of pace, I also have a tendency to get a little annoyed with this carpe diem mentality. Take, for instance, the people who decided that the middle of the street would make the perfect place for an impromptu baseball game last night. There were small children and their parents playing in the middle of a public street (not in a subdivision) that runs parallel to one of the city's busier streets. They were nice enough to halt their game so that I could drive past, but I couldn't help but think that this idea was not a particularly safe one.

The other shock I've had since being home is dealing with the price of gas. Since I am car-free in Boston and have no gas stations near my apartment or places of work, I haven't been paying a great deal of attention to gas prices. However, after paying $30 for eight gallons of gas, I can safely say that I look forward to returning to Boston and the comparably cheaper (if less reliable) public transportation system.

Besides trying to avoid children playing in the middle of the street and going into sticker shock at the pump, I've also had the chance to see a production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, but I'll save that for a later post.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cover Art Crossovers: Twilight Edition

To go along with my earlier review/ rant about Twilight, I thought it would be interesting to note a rather incongruous cover crossover it has with another book. Twlight's cover is actually quite striking. The black background makes a great contrast with the red apple and pale arms and hands. According to Stephanie Meyer's website, the apple is supposed to symbolize choice, and she cites Biblical and mythological references to help support her argument. Personally, my first thought when seeing the cover was the fairy tale Snow White, but as Meyer's notes, apples are a versatile fruit and carry with them a lot of connections and connotations.

Interestingly enough, as I was browsing at my local Barnes & Nobles, I noticed the cover in the Christianity section. My first instinct was to take the book and reshelve it (my old habits as a bookseller have not completely gone away), but then I took a closer look at the cover and the author. It was a book by C. S. Lewis, theologian and author of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Although the covers do have their differences, they are similar enough to fool someone at first glance. This got me to thinking about how confused people would be if they picked up Lewis's book thinking they were going to be reading about a teenager and her noble, undead boyfriend.

Reflections on Twilight

As part of a recent research project (that is quickly becoming my dissertation), I read several popular books of young adult literature. One of these books was Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. For those of you who are not familiar with the story, it is about a girl (Bella) who moves to a small town in Washington and falls in love with a noble vampire. In later adventures, she has another suitor who is a werewolf. If this is hard for you to imagine, picture me trying to describe this book to my professors. By the time I get to the words “noble vampire,” I have completely lost them and they gaze at me with a combination of confusion and disbelief.

The book’s premise, in and of itself, isn’t horrible. It’s not particularly original (it doesn't really tackle anything that Buffy the Vampire Slayer hasn’t already addressed), but it isn’t the worst idea I have ever heard. I suppose a noble vampire is more interesting than, say, a prince or a jewel thief (both seen in Sweet Valley High). Also, the book, which is over 500 pages long, is compulsively readable and has become incredibly popular (the Twilight Saga has spent multiple weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list). A movie version is coming out later this year.

However, unlike the thousands of readers who breathlessly await Stephanie Meyer’s next book and passionately debate the merits of Bella’s two suitors, I just couldn’t get too immersed in the story. While I can understand and even appreciate people's enthusiasm for this book (which a colleague of mine called "Harry Potter for teenage girls"), I find it difficult to become fully immersed in the story.

It isn't that I have anything against teen angst or romance or noble vampires. My main complaint is with Bella. She gives the impression of being intelligent (she likes reading and does very well in school), and she seems nice enough. She isn’t too obsessed with fashion, which is a nice change from the relentless product placement found in the Gossip Girl books. Ms. Meyer goes to great lengths to explain that Bella isn't even unusually pretty (which I find a little hard to believe since every guy she encounters in her high school wants to date her). However, when it comes to Edward (the noble vampire in question), she reverts to being a stereotypical damsel in distress who runs around and requires rescuing on a regular basis. I understand that people in love tend to do crazy things, but Bella’s complete infatuation with Edward makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Even some of the characters in the Gossip Girl series have some outside interests that do not involve dating (I can't believe I just compared Gossip Girl favorably to something).

Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen in the other books in this series, Bella does not get any better. In the second book, Edward, fearing for Bella’s safety, leaves and she becomes depressed. This depression lasts for hundreds of pages, and Bella does incredibly stupid and dangerous things in an attempt to "feel" Edward's presence (it is a long story). While Breaking Dawn, which is coming out in August, is supposedly going to tell readers if Bella ends up with Edward or Jacob, perhaps what she really needs is a hobby (and a therapist).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Commercials: The Good, the Bad, and the Addicting

My spring semester is almost done (yay!), so I've been celebrating by cleaning my apartment and watching television all weekend. As I was flipping channels, I started seeing an unusual amount of odd commercials. Some are just wrong; take, for instance, the Hooters commercial that aired on MTV. I swear that it played during every commercial break and made Hooters seem like the happiest workplace in the world. The basic premise is that a young woman is talking to someone at an employment agency. The young woman in question says that she wants a job where she can make lots of money, work with her friends, and be in television commercials. While the commercials did not make me want to apply to Hooters or crave a plate of chicken wings, it did remind me of this rant about the "stripper myth" from Chris Rock.

Some of the commercials I saw were unintentionally funny. I saw one ad that urges viewers to visit New Jersey. In the vein of other tourism commercials, the ad shows all of the great things about the state, such as gambling resorts and beaches. Although I have nothing against New Jersey, it never would have occurred to me to actually visit there as a tourist. Even the people I know from New Jersey admit that it isn't a state bustling with tourist attractions (unless you count Atlantic City).

My favorite recent commercial is for the Discovery Channel; there's something about random people singing that makes me really content. When these people include Mike Rowe and Stephen Hawking, so much the better. An added bonus is that everyone in this ad seems happy in a sincere way (versus happy in a fake, desperate, Disney World sort of way). However, you are welcome to judge for yourself:

Mythbusters meets Wait, Wait.... Don't Tell Me

As much as I enjoy The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, my favorite humorous news show is NPR's Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me. Hosted by Peter Sagal and Carl Kassell and created by the same people who developed and produce Car Talk, Wait, Wait... has a rotating panel and is consistently funny and informative. Even individuals who I don't typically find entertaining on other shows (I'm looking at you, Mo Rocca) are hilarious and engaging.

One of their segments is "Not My Job," in which they have actors, entertainers, politicians, and other notable people on to ask them about topics these individuals will supposedly know nothing about. Usually their guests, which have included Dana Perino, Barack Obama, and Stephen King, are very good sports and are surprisingly engaging. However, when I heard that this week's guest is Adam Savage of the Mythbusters, I was completely stoked to have two of my favorite things (Wait, Wait.. and Mythbusters) finally collide. Although Adam comes off as a bit more mellow on the radio (either because we don't get to see his facial expressions or because he doesn't have Jamie as a contrast), it was interesting to hear him discuss the show and answer questions about Bram Stoker. Incidentally, I actually knew one of the questions from "Not My Job" this week thanks to Secret Lives of Great Authors. Finally, my interest in the eccentricities of famous people pays off (sort of...).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Book Review: Secret Lives of Great Authors

When I taught English literature, I had a hard time trying to decide what interesting facts to tell my students. Since I was at a fairly conservative school, I tried to keep most of the trivia I presented PG (or PG-13 in some cases) since I never knew what my students would say to their parents or other teachers. For instance, I had a rather upset art teacher come to me after my students started noting the connection between literary and artistic prowess and drug use.

The other thing I have learned from teaching English is that supposedly scandalous behavior is considerably tamer when you know the context and the reality behind the headline. For instance, it is well-known that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s inspiration for “Kubla Kahn” was (supposedly) an opium-induced dream, but comparatively few people know that Coleridge’s opium use was socially acceptable behavior (relatively speaking) and was due to a number of physical ailments.

Consequently, I approached Robert Schnakenberg’s Secret Lives of Authors with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Its cover, which mimics the garish covers of tabloids, advertises the foibles of the great authors in question. For instance, it shows Ernest Hemingway attacking a critic and Louisa May Alcott caressing a bottle of opium. However, to Schnakenberg’s credit, he does not leave the reader thinking that Alcott was a druggie or that Hemingway attacked random people. Instead, he is able to concisely give the contextual information necessary for us to make sense of the authors’ more eccentric behavior.

The book’s layout definitely contributes to its success. While Secret Lives of Great Authors is addicting, it is not necessary to read the book cover to cover. Instead, the arrangement, which has the authors in separate chapters, includes a handy fact-sheet on each author (with information such as dates of birth and death and major works) as well as a brief biography of each subject. Due to this arrangement, Secret Lives of Authors can be used as a quick reference. Although it doesn’t necessarily give a complete picture of the authors, the facts it contains help augment what is known about these figures and make them seem more interesting and well-rounded.

Although the authors included are mostly from the classical canon, Schnakenberg also includes some contemporary figures such as J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Toni Morrison. Certainly, the idea of greatness is subjective, but if Schnakenberg errs on the side of caution a bit too much, this is somewhat understandable. He capably balances well-known (but odd) facts with some more obscure details. Consequently, he mentions both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s penchant for drinking and Fitzgerald’s intense hatred for crossword puzzles.

Overall, Secret Lives of Great Authors makes an often entertaining and occasionally edifying read. While I wouldn’t leave it out for high school freshman and sophomores to peruse at their leisure, I highly recommend it for literature lovers and English teachers (just be certain to use your discretion).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Guilty Pleasures: Movie Edition

Although I usually have fairly good taste in movies, there are some very strange aberrations that will probably make some people question my judgment and/ or sanity. Here are some of the more embarrassing ones (in no particular order):

  1. Mannequin – I love this movie. From the extreme ‘80s hair and fashion (case in point: the shoulder pads on all of the women) to the Starship power ballad “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” this is a great testament to just how na├»ve (or stupid) I once was. When Kim Cattrall reemerged as sexpot Samantha in Sex in the City, a little part of my childhood died.
  1. Jersey Girl – As much as I make fun of Lifetime Television for Women, I must admit that I flip to that blasted channel whenever it airs this movie. For people who did not see it (most of the population), it is a kinder, gentler Kevin Smith movie. It stars Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck, and the ending gets me every time.
  1. The MajesticThis film could also be titled Jim Carrey's Frank Capra Film. In this woefully underrated film (which is probably the least embarrassing movie on this list), Carrey plays a screenwriter who is blacklisted during the Red Scare. I will be the first to admit that the first 30 minutes of this film is slow, but the rest of it is quite good. Roger Ebert, my brother, and I are probably the only people in the world who really enjoyed this movie.
  1. Drop Dead Gorgeous – I still refuse to believe that this is a bad movie. There are some incredibly tasteless jokes, but any movie that makes fun of beauty pageants by featuring Denise Richards singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to Jesus can’t be all bad.
  1. Center Stage – As a recovering theatre junkie, I couldn’t help but get sucked into this drama of dancers attending a fictional ballet company. Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows out act several of the actual actors, but that’s just part of the movie’s charm. However, even the eyebrows can’t compete with the insane (and nonsensical) ballet at the end, where several of the lead characters dance to Michael Jackson and Jamiroquai.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Follow-Up: Then She Found Me (the movie version)

Several posts ago, I mentioned that Elinor Lipman's Then She Found Me was made into a movie. Although the storyline seems to have taken some major deviations from the book, the film (which is Helen Hunt's directorial debut) has garnered some very positive reviews. If you're curious, you might want to check some of them out. Entertainment Weekly gave it a solid "B" and critic for The New York Times seemed to enjoy it as well.

I've decided to try and reserve most of my judgment until I've actually seen the film. While I understand why the screenwriters decided to focus on April's desire to have a child rather than her problems negotiating her complicated relationship with her adopted parents' legacy as Holocaust survivors as well as her relationship with her birth mother, April seems a little too desperate and needy for me (at least in the trailers). I suppose I will just have to wait and see.

Book Review: Touch Me, I’m Sick: The 52 Creepiest Love Songs You’ve Ever Heard

I was really looking forward to reading Tom Reynolds’s Touch Me, I’m Sick, which is a follow-up to his delightfully snarky I Hate Myself and Want to Die. In I Hate Myself and Want to Die, Tom Reynolds took a close look at 52 songs (mostly from the pop charts) that are incredibly depressing. Overall, it was a thoroughly entertaining look at just how ridiculously cheerless songs like “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Last Kiss” truly are. Unfortunately, like too many sequels, Touch Me, I’m Sick doesn’t quite live up to the first book’s greatness.

Like I Hate Myself and Want to Die, Reynolds arranges his songs in categories like “Hopelessly Devoted to You” (stalker songs), “I’m Not Bitter, I Just Wish You’d Die, You Miserable Pig” (angry break-up songs), and “Perfect Storms” (the ultimate in creepy love songs). This book also focuses on dissecting popular songs and explaining why they are so disconcerting. While this premise is intriguing, the end result does not live up to its promise. Despite some very funny moments (the essay on “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is hysterical, particularly if you always found that song to be wrong), much of the book falls flat. Certain songs which should be funny when analyzed don’t quite deliver.

A prime example of this is Reynolds’s treatment of Clay Aiken’s “Invisible,” a song that is creepy (Clay Aiken wants to be invisible so he can watch me in my room?) as well as grammatically incorrect (it should be “If I were invisible”). However, with “Invisible,” Reynolds does not simply discuss the book. Instead, he attempts to show the song’s ridiculousness by featuring a discussion he has with a friend in which he talks about “Invisible.” Although Reynolds tries to be inventive in his presentation of the songs (he uses fake letters and diary entries as well as hypothetical scenarios), I often found myself wishing that he had devoted less energy to the clever presentations and more energy to the actual content. Why use fake journal entries supposedly by Fergie when the song “Fergilicious” is ridiculous enough to dissect in a more straightforward fashion?

All in all, I found Touch Me, I’m Sick to be a pleasant, if somewhat inconsistent, book. Perhaps even Reynolds knew that writing about creepy songs might not be as easy (or as funny) as writing about depressing songs. In his introduction, he admits that, while many people know songs that are melancholy to the point of absurdity, it is considerably more difficult to find songs that are creepy. While I’m not planning on giving away my copy just yet, I don’t foresee myself returning to this book anytime soon.