Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Boardwalk Empire: the Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson

Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson first crossed my radar when I watched the exceptional HBO miniseries of the same name back in the winter.

I was immediately transplanted to the heyday of prohibition and spun into a world with an infrastructure of greed, twisted politics, sex and money. A moral free-space, the corrupt nature of all of the main players in the series and their seemingly conscience-free zone propelled me to want to know more.

At the center of the HBO series and at the center of the high times mentioned in the book’s title is Nucky Johnson: a highly charismatic, outwardly charitable and brilliant businessman who not only played to the hands of widows and orphans; but also made rattling connections with mobsters such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone.
Clad in one of his dozens of pinstripe suits and with his trademark red carnation, Nucky “The Czar of the Atlantic City Ritz” owned an entire city. He spent money as quickly as he made it and his generosity to the poor of his city was only met in dividends by his passion for wine, women and entertainment.

A powder blue rolls Royce was his transportation, his fitness regime was carried out in elite hotel indoor swimming pools and he breakfasted on steak and eggs at noon. His life is a fascinating one (played to great dimensional measure by Steve Buscemi in the series).

Aside from the mid-section of the book which delights in extracting all of the luxurious excess of a city stripped of any legal or moral obligation, is the countless years of labour that went into establishing Atlantic City as one of the world’s first successful vacation spots. A veritable Disneyland that enticed workers from the city to save and spend their last dimes on the excessive trinkets and treats that establishments along the infamous boardwalk made you believe you needed.

Workers would save for a year to take their family to the beach for a week. New Yorkers would steal one of the 95 trains in and out of Atlantic City to savour a few precious hours of gambling, games and booze and all who worked and thrived there partook in its luxurious, neon delights.

What I found most fascinating in the book was the exposition of the lives of the thriving Black community. It was in Atlantic City that they were given stations above the (sadly) usual domestic service sphere popular as employment in the years following the Civil War. Though they were reduced to a segregated beach and school rooms, the Black Community of Atlantic City had the chance to earn respectable money and varied positions. Being such, hundreds of African Americans flocked to the edge of the Boardwalk for a chance to make a better life for themselves and to utilize the trade skills they honed during the treacherous years of slavery.

When the book talks of the double standard set by journalists who boasted of the need to rid Atlantic City of its Black workers; while failing to realize that it was on the shoulders of these workers that the tottering empire was built, the reader is forced to digest yet another jolt of a moment in history rendered shocking in its limitation, prejudice and incomprehensive cruelty.

The narrative in the story is excessively readable and Johnson’s passion and fascination with the history of this port town is infectious.

So many lives were wasted after years of excess. When the Depression hit and the American populous was stripped of any hope of vacation or amusement, Atlantic City began to crumble. When Prohibition ended (Atlantic City’s one succinct and consistent advantage wrought by racketeers and smugglers for years), the once lavish economy experienced its ultimate downfall.

It is hard to believe that such a society existed and thrived under the watchful eye of law enforcement and politics. The corruption of both sides and the blind eyes turned in trade of power, money and greed model a 20th Century Sodom and Gommorah.

I was absolutely riveted.

So, read this and watch the series and revel in the high times and even lower times of one of the most excessive decades in history.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Max on Life: Answers and Insights to Your Most Important Questions by Max Lucado

From the Publisher: We have questions. Child-like inquiries. And deep, heavy ones. In more than twenty-five years of writing and ministry, Max Lucado has been the receiving line for thousands of such questions. The questions come in letters, e-mails, even on Dunkin Donuts napkins. In Max on Life he offers thoughtful answers to more than 150 of the most pressing questions on topics ranging from hope to hurt, from home to the hereafter.
Max writes about the role of prayer, the purpose of pain, and the reason for our ultimate hope. He responds to the day-to-day questions—parenting quandaries, financial challenges, difficult relationships—as well as to the profound: Is God really listening?

Max Lucado’s He Still Moves Stones was the first work of Christian Living/ Christian non-fiction I had ever read.

My minister dad had left the book at home with his sermon notes and I was sick with the flu and reached for it on the coffee table because it was there. I was 11. But, Max Lucado has a way of speaking directly and easily to his readers, using simple analogies and never falling into condescension. I expected the same when I cracked open Max on Life Max’s Insights on Questions asked him by Christians in his congregation and beyond.

Max does not shirk from the easiest or trickiest question. Nor does he play devil’s advocate; nor does he blanket any answer with “ you should believe….” He answers straightly. Using scripture (always), using anecdotes ( when needed). I have read several books of this ilk ( a good representation is Eric Metaxas’ Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About God ( but were afraid to ask )) and what strikes me about Lucado is how greatly he distances personal experience to answer candidly. Sure, he draws on his own emotions and convictions; but this book could easily have fallen into “Well, when I was struggling…”etc., etc., This is not Max’s autobiography. What he leaves out in terms of personal example he makes up for by starkly pulling back a curtain and delving succinctly into the questions asked.

These are universal and familiar questions: about family, suffering, hope, destruction, God in a Godless world. To many, you will have heard these and seemingly every answer to them before. What is comforting about Lucado’s approach is that he speaks to you exactly as if you approached him for coffee and he was interposing as minister/guide. He handles tough questions on heaven/hell (yep, Rob Bell, you’re not the only one taking this on) and even speaks to homosexuality, divorce, pre-marital sex, abortion---- the major themes and questions which pervade 21st Century Christianity.

I was impressed by the realism in the book and Lucado's honesty: Lucado knows he cannot answer a question ( face it, what human can when dealing with questions of the universe), he accepts that we look through a glass dimly and provides the comfort of scripture as the slice of eternity or human comprehension can rely upon.

If you speak Christianese, this is a solid addition of Christian living for your collection.

I was grateful to Thomas Nelson for sending me this book

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Classics Circuit: Austen Vs. Dickens

I am defending Great Expectations on The Classics Circuit today! In the Austen Vs. Dickens Challenge

I have to tell you that these classics competitions are really tough for me. In some ways, it feels like picking a favourite friend… or favourite kind of ice cream.

Sure, sometimes I want peanut butter chocolate; other times I want cookies and cream--- both are equally worthy and wonderful.

I love me some Jane Austen---don’t get me wrong…. And I love me some all-of-Dickens: so much so that when people would ask me what my favourite Dickens’ novel was, for years, I couldn’t pinpoint. Sometimes it was Tale of Two Cities, often it was Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations always held a more-than-special place in my heart.

Forced to confront the fact that at some point I really should pick one, I decided to go with the one that reaches me on the deepest level. All have stories chock-full of brilliant characterization, sparkling sentimentality, wonderful wit and breathtaking materializations of London in all of its gritty glory--- all are like sinking into a favourite easy chair, re-visiting comforting friends, tea in hand.

But, Great Expectations brings to mind the most palpable of reading experiences. I feel greatly when I read Great Expectations, and I glean something different from between its pages upon every visit and am consistently fascinated by the style and the undercurrents of themes enforcing something more than Dickens’ pen-to-page brilliance.

At the forefront, Great Expectations is a relatively simple story. In fact, it is in this seeming simplicity that the reader is tricked into something more complex.

Philip “Pip” Pirrip stares at the headstones of his dead parents on the haunting marshes of the early 19th Century. (Yes, this is one of Dickens’ rare forays into historical fiction, as it is set years before its publication.) There, he is confronted by a veritable bogey-man: an escaped convict of the marshes who intimidates young Pip into near-jelly.

It is this fleeting instance that will shape Pip’s destiny.

Several of the tenets of Great Expectations are well-known to the greater populous: the unlucky-in-love Miss Havisham who wilts amidst the debris of her rotting, unforgotten jilt-at- the-altar; her ward, the icy Estella, well-raised in the art of scorning men and twisting them beneath her lily white finger, the kindly blacksmith Joe and his domineering wife, Mrs. Joe; the mysterious Magwitch; the troubling Mr. Jaggers and the extremely likeable Herbert Pocket.

Daring escapes, plot twists and family mysteries are uncovered at the backdrop of this keen bildungsroman. At the crux, Pip learns the downfalls of wealth and greed and awakens to the realization that with his great expectations a great price is exacted.

It is a bubbling and readable book and certainly one of Dickens’ shortest and most accessible. I think some of its resonance ( as one of the most beloved and adapted works of literature ) is its study in disillusionment and grace. Pip falls deeply into a trap of believing that which will make him whole is largely outside of himself and his meager upbringings. This is a commonality of the ages: a young man bred with good morals ( at least from the salt-of-the-earth blacksmith Joe) is tantalized by the prospect of something greater and holds no qualms at shirking his past, viewing his hometown as wreckage and turning into a veritable snob. What is heartbreaking is how those true to Pip are reluctant to dismiss him (even though, believe me, he can be, at times, the most absolute wretch).

It is these scenes: these confrontations between the now-gentlemanly (at least in form, if not in deed) Pip and the life he left behind as emblemized by Joe ,that wrench my heart.

This is a novel I grew up with and a novel that inspired me to face ugly truths about all of humanity and, on a searing micro level, about myself. We all fall into Pip’s trap when something shiny is dangled affront us; we would all rather believe that our benefactor will lead us to our heart’s desire, not regale us with a past twisted into treachery and mire. We all want to believe we were born for something more, greater than our circumstance, deserving of everything the wealthiest people have attained.

With that stirring of pride and that callous and complacent turning of our disdainful heads comes a stark and powerful realization: that humanity at its pulse is frail, that society ---gilded and obtuse--- exists to spin us into a web of our undoing…. That the greatest force in our life is redemptive love---acts of limitless grace---binding us back to a place where we belong. Where people love unconditionally. Where the mistakes made in youth are wiped clean of a slate by the gnarled hands of honest work and the belief in Love, God’s Will and Redemption.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Art of Romance by Kaye Dacus

I was very excited to receive an advanced "sneak-peek" at The Art of Romance by author Kaye Dacus. I had heard a lot about the author's work before, and was refreshingly surprised by her candid voice on the role (or lack thereof) of single women in the Church and the marginalization of this group therein. Thus, I was excited to hear that one of the major trajectories in her novels was the exposition of older women ( not elderly, mind, yet somewhat more mature than the many novels focused on the early 20s crowd) finding happiness and true love well after their 30th birthdays.

Caylor, the spirited and spicy academic at the forefront of The Art of Romance is no exception. A thinking, artistic and erudite English Literature professor, Caylor is a needed change from the chicklit heroines so predominant in the Christian and secular fields. No cosmo drinking, pink-shoe-shopping, hapless, assistant in a major marketing or publishing firm is she. No metropolitan existence and urbanite roommates pepper her flashy life. Instead, she lives in a house in the midst of renovation with her darling grandmother and, soon, her sister.

Caylor is in her mid-30s: not slim-perfect, not stylish ( she has moments, especially in a well-picked dress that catches our hero's eye), not petite. In fact, Caylor's height was one of the most outstanding aspects of this statuesque and poised woman. She is learning to be comfortable in her own skin and it shows..... especially to the somewhat-younger Dylan Bradley.

Dylan is the newest addition to the faculty at JRU, the institution where Caylor works. A painter who has not even dipped into his full potential, Dylan is trying to recover from a domineering relationship where he was victim to a possessive mate while establishing himself as a successful art professor.

I found Dylan's past and the reconciliation thereafter a welcome addition to the novel and to the genre. Christian writers rarely delve into relationships past that expose a hero's less-than-pure past in the same honest way Dacus does. Dacus is blunt about Dylan's past travails and eager to paint him a winsome hero despite them.

It works.

Though both have facets of themselves they keep from each other, the chemistry between them is absolute. Especially when it comes to their appreciation of art: written, verbal and visual.
Dacus showed a pleasing knowledge of the work of artists past and did a wonderfully descriptive job of painting ( forgive the pun) Dylan's artistry and his consistent work on new canvas. From the moment Dylan views Caylor as a prospective model and sees her, not as a flawed heroine, but as a woman who catches a certain depth of light, you know that these two are meant to be in each other's company.

There are several pleasing subplots and characters including Dylan's rambunctious and supportive brothers, the elder generation who thrives on matchmaking their grandchildren, Caylor's close girlfriends and Caylor's spunky sister. Overall, this is a very well-fleshed out novel.

I particularly enjoyed the duality of the title and how it means more than you think it does---when it takes a slant at revealing the hidden identity of a popular romance cover model!

Readers of Contemporary Romance and "Chick Lit" will enjoy the pleasant predictability of the plot and the cozy nature of the hero and heroine's burgeoning courtship.

Because of the age of her characters and the struggles they undergo ( due to age difference, maturity, intellect and errors in their past), I think Dacus is a much-needed voice in a sea of novels that favour the experience of much younger women.

If you, like me , have ever felt yourself restraining conversation in male company at a party because you were worried about coming off as too intellectual, then Caylor is the heroine for you. She is not afraid to be herself and her boldness sparks...and attracts... the attention of a man who, in any other novel, might overlook her for someone thinner, more stylish, younger, in less of a threatening position, etc.,etc.,

Overall, a thoughtful and well-told book that favours showing over telling and that delves into two characters whose redemption ultimately comes from their ability to recognize their downfalls and collectively pick themselves up, dust themselves off and head into a far more promising future.

Its conflict and undertones of past mistakes and present judgments give it a "meatier" feel than many of its ilk.

This was a welcome and different type of Contemporary Christian Romance and I hope you pick it up, have fun and find yourself in the refreshingly normal characters!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Courting Miss Amsel by Kim Vogel Sawyer

Courting Miss Amsel was the perfect Easter read to take to my favourite little market/coffeeshop in my hometown for the long weekend. It was definitely a cozy book and wills in the spring with its colourful world and warm-fuzzy feelings. We Christians LOVE our one-room-schoolhouse-marm stories and Ms. Edythe Amsel was the perfect match for the delightful, rambunctious and high spirit litter of children she was supplied with. She had the spunk and innovation of a teacher like Anne’s Miss Stacey ( see Anne of Green Gables) even when pestered by an older, mischevious student ( see Lundy Taylor in Catherine Marshall’s Christy). She met each challenge head on and with a surprisingly independent intelligence all while ironing out wrinkles in her personal life, learning to reconcile her past with her promising future and drawing closer to a God she had never learned to lean on.

Two of Miss Amsel’s favourite students ( and the reader will learn why when they encounter these endearing boys), are the blonde-curled nephews of upstanding workman Joel Townsend: a husky, kind-hearted man who raises his orphaned nephews as if they are his own. There are many touching scenes developing this family dynamic. When Joel sees how deeply and genuinely Edythe cares for his charges and how the sun catches the glistening lines of her well-manicured hair, he falls promptly in love. Circumstances, misunderstandings and timidity keep them both from acknowledging their feelings for one another, though the romance blossoms, slowly, swiftly and gradually with a knowing wink at the reader who is eons ahead: waiting for the clueless lovers to catch up.

One of the most interesting strands of the novel was Edythe’s burgeoning interest in feminine equality: especially pertaining acts forbidding women to own land. At one point, she causes more than bit of a kerfuffle with the town council when she is inspired to take her students to hear the famed Susan Anthony speak. If I have one criticism about the book, it is that this wasn’t pursued more ( however, Edythe’s growing interest and passion is left high and prospective at the end--- and perhaps, someday, Sawyer could think of writing a sequel). I completely related with Joel and his desire to find a mother for his boys in the same way I understood Edythe’s conflicts and crises of faith. This was a solid, engaging read with lots of historical anecdotes and tidbits painting an accurate picture of a young teacher in the latter 19th Century. In my opinion, this is Kim Vogel Sawyer’s strongest offering to date.

My thanks to Bethany House for the review copy

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

TLC BLOG TOUR: A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

A Jane Austen Education is one of the most delightful books I have read this year and an essential compendium to any extensive Jane Austen Collection of works and criticism ( such as my own). It extolls all of the virtues of Jane Austen in a way we don’t often view them: as tantamount to the greatest life lessons. Walking us through Jane Austen’s six novels in a literary memoir, noted critic and renowned professor William Deresiewicz breathes fresh life into an author whose works I have read to shreds.

Reading Jane Austen for the first time ( as a bitter modernist with a penchant for coffee and sunglasses, apathy and modernism),Deresiewicz mocked the mundane world of Emma: the seeming non-happenstances that threaded through a novel with no overtly bold statements, no visceral truths at forefront, no gripping plot. But, then the book changed, it ( like the best books of literature we peel back like a leaf) become all-to-clear for our author and informed his life and formative academic years in a way that not only propelled him to sink into Austen’s entire canon; but shifted his world view.

His relationships, his view of love, the way he treated people and the lens through which he viewed literature was reformed and hi-jacked by a growing fascination with Austen: who said the extraordinary and catapulted universal truths into the wide sphere of her readership with the ordinary.

From his crush on Elizabeth Bennett to his learning to love in the same way Catherine Morland learned to love a hyacinth at the urging of Miss Tilney, a Jane Austen Education is an ABSOLUTE MUST for those who love her novels.

You will want to think back on your first reading experience, you will identify with the author’s feelings on one portion of the novel while rally against views on another and you will be forced to contemplate how Jane Austen has subverted herself into your psyche, whether or not you knew she was doing so.

Austen’s place in the cultural consciousness as well as her lasting place in media is another thread of the book.

Favourite moments include:

Deresiewicz referring to the New York Dating Scene as “an endless maze of stupid conversations”

His run-down of the films good and bad

The fact that he tries to gloriously extricate every splendid moment of the novel without spoiling the plot for new readers

His unabashed crush on Elizabeth Bennet and his willingness to defend her from any criticism: warranted or unwarranted

His treatise on novels as “practice life” and his exposition on the life of a reader whose novel reading informs make-up: morally, ethically, in love, reason and decision

His absolute joy in the Ang Lee adaptation of Sense and Sensibility: casting light on a dark plot

Most importantly, his recognition that the power of the best literary novels is one that takes residence in your brain and being and changes your life.

View the guest blog by William Deresiewicz at The Huffington Post

Visit the TLC tour

Monday, May 02, 2011

South Riding started last night on PBS.

Based on a classic 20th Century novel, focusing on the triumphs and travails of a rural community, featuring the splendid Anna Maxwell Martin ( think: Bleak House) and David Morrissey (whose Col Brandon in Sense and Sensibility was, to me, even greater than the great Alan Rickman in the Ang Lee adaptation and who steals scenes left, right and center in Our Mutual Friend and who sings his way opposite David Tennant in the really odd Blackpool and who now plays DI Thorne) the series has the right ingredients to make for a lasting impression and started off with a bang.

Couched in the uncertainty single women underwent after the Great War, South Riding flaunts an experience metaphoric of the shift occurring in traditional women’s roles. Knowing that a large population of young British men had never returned from service and knowing that the obvious role of domestic servitude a la wife and mother was a fleeting prospect, Sarah Burton represents the “other”: the women who recognized that they had to carve a life for themselves outside of marriage and motherhood.

Fortunately, Sarah Burton embraces change and says so with indignation and incendiary purpose when she applies for the position of headmaster at an all-girls’ school in South Riding. The board is pleasantly surprised by her passion and intelligence and her history with their township. For the most part, they believe that the experiences she gained in life and academic pursuit in London will greatly inform the development of the young women in their township. Robert Carne, a once-wealthy but now struggling landowner, believes that she represents the shifting change that has warranted his diminishing circumstances.

The first episode introduces a roster of characters that will serve as the main players in the piece. While concurrently reading the Winifred Holtby novel, the first drastic change I noticed between book and screen is the witling down of the book’s massive cast. Instead, Andrew Davies does what he does best: capture the spirit of the novel and attend to making character traits pervading strongly represented in one or two characters (instead of the novel’s 3 or 4, etc.,).

The political spirit of the novel, the at-odds penchant for passion, change and promise and the stern wills and ethics of both Sarah Burton and Robert Carne help establish the comparison this story often has to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Other 19th Century literary comparisons can be made to Jane Eyre--- but you will have to watch the series, or read the book, to glean those similarities for yourself.

Overall, a refreshing start-off to a winsome costume drama with lots of heart, feeling, romantic tension and beautifully rendered dialogue penned by one of the BBC’s best writers.