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The Witches

posted by: March 7, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The WitchesHysteria, hallucination or superstition? Stacy Schiff does not provide readers with the answer, but she does give us all the ammunition we need to come to our own conclusions in The Witches: Salem, 1692.

 

Massachusetts, 1692. The time and place should be immediately recognizable. It was arguably the darkest period in early colonial American history. The colony was dotted with small villages and towns that lingered on the edge of wilderness and the unknown. Harsh winters and Indian raids kept colonists wearily alert. Religion provided guidance, if not solace, in everyday life but did little to dispel the monotony of winter days spent indoors. Could all of this have led young girls to writhe and contort and then accuse others of causing their discomfort through witchcraft, which then led the accused to implicate their own families and neighbors? All in all, 20 people were executed for witchcraft. Nineteen were convicted of witchcraft and hanged while one refused to enter a plea and was crushed to death under the weight of heavy stones.

 

Little historical documentation of the Salem Witch Trials survived, either due to the shorthand of court transcriptionists or later loss from war. Much of what did survive comes from secondhand accounts or accounts written down years after the trials. Schiff thoroughly interpreted what little documentation survived from 1692 and 1693. Her take on the trials is heavy on facts with not so much narrative. The Witches is a well-researched book about the Salem Witch Trials that focuses on the leaders of the community.

 

If you want to balance your nonfiction reading of the trials with fascinating fictional versions, check out The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, both by Katherine Howe, and Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible.


 
 

Deep Dark Fears

posted by: March 1, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for Deep Dark Fears“I fear that, one day, I’ll hear my mother’s voice calling for help from the attic, but on the way there, she’ll pull me aside, because she heard it too.” This is just a taste of what you’ll read in Fran Krause’s delightful Deep Dark Fears, inspired by his Deep Dark Fears Web comic series. Krause’s online readers sent him stories about their apprehensions. He compiled 101 of those stories, some hilarious and some downright horrifying, and made each of them into comics to create this graphic novel.

 

I’m just going to come out and say that Deep Dark Fears is the best book ever. It made me laugh out loud and shiver with fear while looking over my shoulders. Krause’s drawings are vivid, childlike and comical. He did a marvelous job translating his readers’ real life fears into comics. Bravo!

 

Deep Dark Fears is so cool, so funny and even scary. I highly recommend that you add it to your “must read” list. And who knows, you might just find one of your fears inside this book. For more, check out Fran Krause on Tumblr.

 


 
 

Movie Freak

posted by: February 26, 2016 - 6:00am

Cover art for Movie FreakFilm critic Owen Gleiberman, best known for his two-decade stint at Entertainment Weekly, reflects on his passion-turned-career in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies. His movie obsession began in the late 1960s when his parents loaded him and his younger siblings into the family Buick for a night at the drive-in outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The experience held a “disturbingly sinister excitement” for the young Gleiberman, who was just seven years-old. Did his father choose wholesome family viewing? Oh, no — these were movies HE wanted to see, with no regard for whether they were appropriate for his young children. Gleiberman recalls many adult-oriented drive-in movies he experienced as a third-grader, most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler. Although they never discussed these films afterward, the experience made him feel closer to his distant parents.

 

By junior high he was addicted to monster movies, and then in high school he gravitated to scandalous films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which left a big impression. But the movie that shifted his entire worldview was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which he admits scared the “bejesus” out of him, and fulfilled his craziest drive-in dreams for the extreme.

 

His first forays into criticism came during college at The University of Michigan. He was obsessive in his film viewing, referring to it as “the religion that sustained me.” He muses that the true movie buff leads a solitary existence, even when they are with other people. Movies help you leave yourself behind, and the essential experience has almost nothing to do with the quality of what you’re seeing.

 

Readers who love pop culture will enjoy Movie Freak. Gleiberman has always been a critic who speaks his own mind, proud of the fact that he doesn’t go along with the crowd when it comes to his reviews. He isn’t swayed by the Hollywood machine — he calls it as he sees it, even when that leaves him as odd man out, as it did when he panned the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman. He is proud of championing indie films like the documentary Crumb, and unapologetic in his general dislike of foreign films.

 

Digressions into his personal life could have been left out, but when Gleiberman sticks to the business of Hollywood and the changing face of film criticism in the time of relentless blogging and social media, Movie Freak shines.

 


 
 

My Father, the Pornographer

posted by: February 18, 2016 - 7:00am

My Father, the PornographerIn the small Kentucky town where the miner’s son grew up to be a miner and the bootlegger’s son grew up to be a bootlegger, no one was surprised when the writer’s son grew up to be a writer in Chris Offutt’s new memoir My Father, the Pornographer.

 

Imagine that your father dies and you, as the eldest son, are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out his office. Now imagine discovering that your father, who passed himself off as a science fiction writer, also wrote hundreds of pornographic novels. After clearing out decades’ worth of garbage and searching the vents for hidden treasure that turns out to be nothing more than his father’s last practical joke, Offutt quickly realizes that his father’s writing career wasn’t merely supplemented by pornography — it was the bulk of it. In an attempt to understand his deceased father’s perverse obsessions, he packs and transports nearly two tons of his father’s work from his childhood home to his current residence in Mississippi.

 

But more than just a story of Andrew Offutt’s career as a pornographer, this is also the tale of Chris Offutt’s childhood and a meditation on his contentious relationship with his father. As Offutt acts as archeologist, reconstructing his father’s career and life, he realizes just how much they have in common. Offutt is struck by his father’s unique writing method: He kept a catalog of descriptions filed under various (frequently vulgar) categories and when writing a novel he plugged the passages in where needed. When the younger Offutt considered joining the military, he prepared for basic training by filling a notebook with amusing anecdotes pilfered from Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” divided into specific categories, that he could pass off as his own experiences in letters he wrote to his family back home. Although he himself is not a purveyor of pornography, Offutt is dismayed at the similarities he finds. He isn’t sure what he hopes to learn from immersing himself in his father’s “private and unfiltered fantasies,” but the deeper he digs, the harder it is to walk away.

 

For another memoir about the father/son relationship, check out Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.


 
 

Ametora

posted by: February 17, 2016 - 7:00am

AmetoraFrom its curious inception as an emulation of American postwar Ivy League attire to its evolution into countless worldwide labels, Japanese menswear has pioneered the world’s most popular looks of leisure. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a fantastic look at the history of men’s fashion in Japan.

 

According to Marx, the concept of fashion was never prevalent in male life in Japan before World War II. Caring about one’s appearance was viewed as effeminate; instead, men dressed in functional, traditional raiment. After the bombs fell and the war ended, many people were forced to make their own clothes out of leftover military surplus like parachutes and fatigues. It wasn’t until the imminent arrival of the 1964 Olympics that men began to ponder their looks and shirked survivor chic.

 

Marx traces the origins of some of Japan’s earliest men’s fashions back to a couple of standout individuals who would all live on to create, control and influence the country’s leisure fashion industry throughout the second half of the 20th century. It began with the “ivy” look, Japan’s best attempt at manufacturing clothing reflective of what students at northeast American colleges were wearing. In the late 1960s, Ivy relaxed into the “heavy duty” look, which brought denim jeans to Japan and elevated American outfitter companies like L.L. Bean to cult status. Fueled by a bubble in the economy, fashion hotspot Harajuku popped up overnight and exploded into Japan’s most frenetic fashion district, housing imports and original brands men couldn’t buy quickly enough.

 

Over time, Japan’s fashion endeavors evolved from emulation into innovation, leading to greater exports and global brand presences. The story is incredibly interesting, and Marx’s research and presentation are as impeccable as his style. Readers who enjoy microhistories or are into lifestyle reading will find Ametora to be irresistible.

Tom

Tom

 
 

When Breath Becomes Air

posted by: February 12, 2016 - 7:00am

When Breath Becomes AirPaul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.

 

Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.

 

Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.

 

Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.

 

He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.


 
 

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