Friday, January 31, 2014

Farewell, Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister

Farewell, Dorothy ParkerFarewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I read this on a recommendation from someone who knows how fond I am of Dorothy Parker. This fact made the book so much worse. To be fair, the author all but apologizes for her sad little trick in an afterword, but it would have been better placed as a caveat at the front.

This is a chick-lit novel with a twist: Dorothy Parker's spirit is trapped in the Algonquin Room's guest book, and leaving the book open to her signature allows her to materialize and take over the body of mousy film critic Violet Epps, helping her to develop a backbone, get a better boyfriend, and win custody of her orphaned niece.

Yes, it's just as bad as it sounds. Dorothy Parker comes off as a wacky auntie rather than the formidable literary force that she was, and the plot veers from ridiculous to unfathomable. The plot is terrible, the writing is terrible, and even the grammar is terrible.

Please don't read this book. If you want some Dorothy Parker, look for her in the byline and leave this to go away quietly.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez, by Robert Andrew Powell

This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad JuárezThis Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez by Robert Andrew Powell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A successful author has a bit of a turn of fortune and decides to settle in Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican border with El Paso, Texas, to follow a newly elevated first-division Mexican soccer team for the season. The cost of living is cheap, the food is outstanding, and the people are terrific-- if they haven't been killed. Juárez during the time of Powell's residence has the highest per-capita murder rate of any city in the world, and it's due to the rampant drug cartels battling it out for the border territory. Juárez is a city full of factories with American contracts, thanks to NAFTA; yet a lot of people seem to be doing pretty well for themselves. Mexican president Calderón's policies give only lip service to fighting the war on drugs, and not very far behind the scenes support the infrastructure of the growing border drug trafficking scene in Juárez.

But the soccer team, Juárez's beloved Indios, is in a bubble, in a not-so-bad stadium with a dedicated staff and a travel schedule that gets them away from the city regularly to play the rest of the top teams in Mexico. Powell went to write the story of an unlikely success, only to be on hand when things went downhill. The narrative becomes a metaphor for Juárez itself; so much good along with so much bad, both forces fighting it out for dominance.

The fans are passionate, but some of them are running drugs and at least one of them is doing hit jobs for hire on the side. Powell discovers that there is no black and white anywhere: no one and nothing is all good or all evil. He lives in an almost untenable situation where he sees dead bodies regularly from the hundreds of murders in the city each month.

If you're American and don't know a lot about our neighbors to the south, this book is a good start. You will leave with an appreciation for the Mexican culture's sense of fun and of family, and of the way they are able to live good lives in what seems like a hopeless situation. As a journalist, he includes plenty of factual information to support his observations, so you will learn a lot about the Calderón years, the drug cartels, the economic situation, and Mexican Primera leagues soccer. But you'll learn most about the people that make Juárez worth living in, and maybe worth dying for.


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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Debt

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Plainly put, this book is outstanding. I read it on recommendation from a friend after we had a conversation about debt, and it's permanently changed my framework for looking at history: now I see power and economic imbalances instead of a linear series of events.

Graeber takes us from pre-history through the 2008 economic meltdown in 400 pages that are absolutely packed with information about world civilizations. Nearly everything one can think of is directly impacted by the concept of debt: war, peace, slavery, sex, family life, education, language, growth and decay of every kind; all are shaped by the indebtedness of countries, kings, businesses, and people to one another.

The endnotes are as enlightening as the text: when you read, be sure to follow along in the back when you come to a note, or you'll miss some of the best side-excursions you'll ever read.

One need not be an economist to read or appreciate this excellent book. Anyone who enjoys history and has a basic working knowledge of world civilizations will be astonished at the amount of information you will encounter here. It's like finding a common thread through everything that has always been there and was invisible until someone pointed it out. Graeber has done so with this extraordinary work.

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