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Author Archive: "Review-a-Day"

The Wendy Chronicles

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy WassersteinWendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon

Reviewed by Adam Kirsch
The New Republic

The great subject for American Jewish literature has always been the family: its imprisoning intimacy, its guilt-inducing demands, and sometimes even its life-giving warmth. From Arthur Miller's Lomans, cursed by their dreams of success, to Henry Roth's David Schearl, depraved by the sexual tensions in his extended clan, the heroes of American Jewish fiction are generally martyrs to their families. If Judaism had saints, these writers' patron saint would be Jephthah's daughter, who was sacrificed by her father in accordance with a thoughtless vow.

Wendy Wasserstein may not belong in the ranks of the greatest American Jewish writers, but like Neil Simon before her, she helped to popularize the Jewish family romance by making it a subject for heartfelt and accessible comedy. And whether the characters in her plays are explicitly Jewish, as in ...


Lawyer Fights Fast Food Chains Over E. Coli

Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans EatPoisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat by Jeff Benedict

Reviewed by Lynne Terry
The Oregonian

A healthy 6-year-old girl dies five days after staying home from school with a stomach ache. Her doctors are mystified, her parents devastated. Soon clusters of kids across the West turn up in emergency rooms with similar symptoms: fever, cramping, bloody diarrhea. In the end, hundreds fall ill and three more die.

Sound like script material for a Hollywood movie? Maybe, but it really happened and is recounted by Jeff Benedict in his book Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat.

Today, after successive outbreaks involving everything from sprouts in Germany to strawberries in Oregon, E. coli is a household term. But nearly two decades ago, only a few scientists knew much about the virulent strain -- E. coli O157:H7 -- that contaminated the Jack in the Box burgers in 1993.

The outbreak spurred ...


“The Echo Chamber” by Luke Williams

The Echo ChamberThe Echo Chamber by Luke Williams

Reviewed by Jaya Chatterjee
Bookslut

Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo's 1913 manifesto, The Art of Noises, became a cornerstone of modernist thought for its ingenious taxonomy of the aural. From the sorting hat of sound, Russolo drew six discrete categories: sibilant noises; rumbles and roars; screeches and creaks; percussives made by touching such resonant objects as wood, stone, or clay; portentous sounds such as hisses; and animal and human noises.

A similar conceit underpins Luke Williams's sprawling debut novel, The Echo Chamber. Fifty-four year old Scotswoman Evie Steppman, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with acute sonic acuity, parses and classes noise as she recounts her family history through narratives and interludes that take her to Normandy, Palermo, Nigeria, and home to Gullane, Scotland, where she composes her tale. Entering Evie's reductive sensorium, where the auditory and the haptic have primacy over other senses, the reader as listener hears a lyrical, melismatic story that draws upon her senses, pulling her into a narrative arc reminiscent of Julia Glass's Three ...


Reasoning Against Reason

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and AchievementThe Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

Reviewed by Jag Bhalla
The Wilson Quarterly

The Social Animal is a book of grand and diverse ambitions, by one of the nation's most intellectually creative journalists, New York Times columnist David Brooks. His aim is to revolutionize our culture's operative beliefs about human nature, using scientific studies that reveal the "building blocks of human flourishing." His book is part fiction, part nonfiction popularization (neuroscience, psychology, sociology), and part grand synthesis (intellectual history, social policy). The genre-blended result delivers some hybrid vitality, but at the expense of coherence and rigor.

Brooks believes Western culture has a lobotomized view of human nature inherited from the French Enlightenment. Rene Descartes and other philosophers described humans as autonomous individuals endowed with powers of reason that are separate from and pitted against the emotions. The ability to flourish depended on an individual's suppression of his unruly passions. British Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume ...


Virgil for Superheroes

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being HumanSupergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human by Grant Morrison

Reviewed by Greg Baldino
Rain Taxi

Whether they be gods or angels, the idea of sentient beings beyond us mere mortals but recognizably similar has influenced human thought since the earliest days of tale-telling around the fire. In some tellings, they are of a state of grace from whence humans fell; in others they are a potential, something that might, by labor or virtue, be reached by all. In the 20th century, these tales were given new form with the advent, at the publishing of Superman's first adventure in Action Comics #1, of the superhero. This sub-genre of a sub-genre, born of the highest mythologies and the lowest pulp denominators, rose up from a declasse and maligned artform to become the dominant mythology of the modern world, influencing philosophical discourses as much as box office receipts.

Grant Morrison is no stranger to these ...


Mysterious “Habibi” Cuts To The Core Of Humanity

HabibiHabibi by Craig Thompson

Reviewed by Glen Weldon
NPR

Craig Thompson's 2003 graphic novel Blankets is a book that people like me hand to people like you when we want you to understand that comics are much more than superheroes -- that they are a medium, a singular means of storytelling with its own rich language, idioms and rules. In Thompson's 600-page semi-autobiographical tome, a young man gripped in the often-painful process of discovering his adult self attempts to forge a spiritual and artistic identity even as he falls helplessly in love with a girl who represents everything his life has been missing. Thompson deftly married spare text to often lyrical imagery to create in the reader the same exhilarating tension of first love that seizes his hero.

Now Thompson brings that mastery of the alchemical mixture of word and picture only possible on the comics page to the much-anticipated Habibi, set somewhere in a modern yet resolutely mythical Middle East. The novel's ambitions are larger than those of Blankets, and its subjects many: In just the ...


God Told Me to Kill You

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

Reviewed by Doug Brown
Powells.com

On July 24, 1984, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers brutally murdered their sister-in-law and her baby girl, believing they were fulfilling a revelation that one of the brothers had received from God. Today they reside in federal prisons. The older brother, Ron (who had the revelation), is on death row and following every avenue for appeal. The younger brother, Dan, is serving a life sentence and seems okay with it (Krakauer says he refers to prison as a "monastery"). Krakauer spoke to Dan for the book, but not Ron. Under the Banner of Heaven tells in parallel the story of the Lafferty brothers and their descent into fundamentalism alongside the history of the Mormon Church.

The modern Mormon Church is quick to distance itself from fundamentalists; most are excommunicated from the Latter-Day Saint (LDS) community. The church downplays the history of plural marriage (polygamy) in Mormonism, to the point of maintaining that Brigham Young was monogamous ...


Much, But Not Everything

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for AmericaMightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds

Reviewed by Drew Gilpin Faust
The New Republic

As the obsolescence and even the demise of the book are widely foretold, it is all the more important -- and comforting -- to recognize how a book can change the world. It is hard to think of many that have done so more emphatically than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lincoln is famously said to have greeted its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1862 by inquiring, "So this is the little lady who started this great war?" And whether he actually ever made the remark or not, the very fact of her visit to the White House and the emergence of the legend of his respectful, if somewhat patronizing, salutation are sufficient evidence of the remarkable influence that Stowe's words claimed in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was at once a novel and an "event," as Theodore Parker proclaimed soon after it ...


Jonathan Raban Is Still Driving Home in New Essay Collection

Driving Home: An American JourneyDriving Home: An American Journey by Jonathan Raban

Reviewed by Debra Gwartney
The Oregonian

Jonathan Raban's new collection of essays, Driving Home: An American Journey, could easily have been titled "The Jonathan Raban Reader," as the brisk, smartly crafted pieces are just that representative of Raban's long and illustrative writing life. He is the author of 12 other books, fiction and nonfiction, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award among other prizes. The 44 (yes, 44) selections in this book, written over a near two-decade stretch, are largely culled from the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, with others published in such revered pages as the Atlantic Monthly, Granta, Esquire, Outside and Playboy. By combining them in one volume, Raban offers a lively stew of topics, themes that most interest the British citizen turned Seattleite, subjects that get him most excited and riled.

Before we enter the territory of excited and riled, though, Raban first introduces himself -- in one of the most enchanting essays in the book and its first -- as a devoted ...


“Life Itself,” a Memoir by Film Critic Roger Ebert

Life Itself: A MemoirLife Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

Reviewed by Gerald Bartell
Washington Post Book World

In the 1950s, long before he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, Roger Ebert spent many a Saturday afternoon sipping root beer and munching jawbreakers, Necco Wafers and licorice at the Princess Theater in his home town of Urbana, Ill. Five cartoons, a newsreel, a Batman, Superman or Rocketman serial and then a double bill -- a Lash LaRue western followed by a Bowery Boys or Abbott and Costello comedy -- flashed before him.

Ebert's memoir, Life Itself, resembles one of those movie marathons. Tales from childhood, interviews with film stars and directors, funny and touching stories about colleagues, and evocative essays about trips unspool before the reader in a series of loosely organized, often beautifully written essays crafted by a witty, clear-eyed yet romantic raconteur.

Ebert begins with his childhood, a time when he did not, as one might think, escape an unhappy home at the movies. His parents sometimes quarreled over money, but mostly Roger's account of the family's life in Urbana ...


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